Lucien Goldmann

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David Caute

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2326

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'....

(This entire section contains 2326 words.)

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M. Goldmann has illustrated this method in hisLe 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 rather as a part of the overall world economic structure. (pp. 210-13)

In his Pour une sociologie du roman, Goldmann examines the work of André Malraux, in order to illustrate his theory…. Highly sensitive to the needs of science, he emphasizes his willingness to test his theory empirically and impartially. It remains open to doubt whether he has quite succeeded in doing this.

The hypothesis he offers us is that the genuine novels of M. Malraux—Les Conquérants, La Voie royale and La Condition humaine—correspond to a period when the novelist had confidence in, and was working on behalf of, certain authentic and universal values. Earlier, in the 1920s, when Malraux had been oppressed by the threatened death of man in the wake of the death of God, he had expressed himself in more exotic and fragmented forms—Royaume farfelu and Lunes en papier being the most conspicuous examples.

M. Goldmann describes Les Conquérants and La Voie royale as among the last great attempts to write novels with problematical heroes. In La Condition humaine a collective hero appears—the revolutionary groups as epitomized by Katow, Kyo and May. The world, the objective environment, is here represented not only by the counter-revolution itself but also by the local leadership of the Comintern at Hankow. Between the heroic group and the environment in his novel there exists the dialectical conflict which is the basis of the novel form. The group is problematical, doomed.

This period of novel-writing was short-lived. Already in Le Temps du mépris (1935) and more noticeably in L'Espoir (1937), the disintegration of the novel form (says Goldmann) is in evidence. These works are not so much true novels as narratives (récits) in lyrical-epic form. The change is explained in terms of Malraux's renewed sense of the decline of universal values. The problematical hero had ceased to be possible.

What are we to make of this diagnosis? There can be no doubt at all that Goldmann is a perceptive critic, and an important one; but it is by no means proven that he has succeeded in marrying Malraux to his general theory.

In accounting for the gradual disintegration of the novel and of the problematical hero, Goldmann postulates three periods in the development of Western capitalism: first, liberal capitalism, giving way between 1900 and 1910 to monopoly capitalism and to a general structural crisis which lasted until about 1945; finally, since the war, an advanced capitalist society in possession of a mechanism for avoiding calamity and for sustaining the level of life and employment of the population at large. In this latter phase, he writes, the process of dehumanization is complete. (pp. 213-14)

A major weakness in Goldmann's thesis is the fact that Le Temps du mépris and L'Espoir concluded with the high tide of Malraux's faith in international Communism. If these works marked a new departure for Malraux, it can hardly have been on account of 'a breakdown of faith in universal human values'. The forces of Fascism were strong, certainly, but no stronger than the forces of the counter-revolution in China, depicted in the earlier novels. (p. 214)

Indeed, it would be hard to find a more untypical writer than Malraux. During the years 1941–5, when so many French writers were coming towards Communism with renewed hope, Malraux was resolutely moving in the opposite direction. The dominant literary creed in postwar France was that of the neo-Marxist, existentialist humanists led by Sartre. Malraux was the odd man out.

The truth is that the choices and allegiances of individual writers are often obscure and beyond reach of a general theory. Yet all Marxist critics, whatever their particular 'school', show a tendency to undue systematization. For them determinism proves to be an irresistible drug. At his worst the Marxist walks through the complex labyrinths of the past, painting 'must' and 'had to happen' and 'inevitable' on the walls. (pp. 215-16)

A central element in M. Goldmann's general theory is 'reification' or 'alienation', the process described by Marx (and earlier Hegel) by which man ceases to recognize himself in his own work. Other men now appear to him as objects, as embodiments of the money principle or of commodities; and from all objects he feels estranged, alienated.

This is perhaps not the place to examine the merits of Marx's theory. But such significance does Goldmann ascribe to it as a determining factor in the history of the novel that one is compelled to observe his failure to discuss certain problems. Is alienation an anthropological, social or psychological problem? Is it associated only with capitalism, or with the division of labour in general, both inside and outside the factory? Is a total alienation of man either logically conceivable or in accordance with the most obvious features of normal social behaviour?

With such problems Goldmann is evidently not concerned. Marx explained the problem of reification, of the 'fetishism of commodities', in Capital, and with that explanation Goldmann declares himself satisfied. It is in the light of the reification principle (human relations losing their human character and assuming the form of relations between objects) that he studies the nouveau roman, and particularly the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. M. Robbe-Grillet's concentration on and exhaustive description of physical objects is well known. Goldmann argues that if in the novel Jealousy, for example, the relationship of a woman, a lover and a jealous onlooker is described in terms of the objects surrounding them, this is because human relations have now reached that point of dehumanization. However, the time-lag between Marx's first thoughts on alienation and Robbe-Grillet's first novel is no less than 110 years—a gap which Goldmann tries but fails to explain.

In fact, the nouveau roman fits no more naturally into the general theory than does Malraux. Robbe-Grillet has made his own theories crystal-clear on more than one occasion. He does not believe that men have at least come to regard one another as objects; on the contrary, his complaint is that in literature they insist on regarding objects as men. He affirms that objects are objects. He distrusts the writer's search for analogical relationships—the weather is not really 'capricious' nor the sun 'merciless'. The material universe, he points out, is not compounded of human emotions, and the anguish that Sartre in La Nausée or Camus in L'Étranger reveal at the non-identity of men and things is, he believes, a false anguish and the basis for a false tragedy. (pp. 216-17)

[What] is apparent, though Goldmann ignores the fact, is that the nouveau roman is a highly self-conscious cultural movement, a reaction against certain literary and philosophical trends, a contribution to a phenomenological discussion. (p. 217)

If the cultural superstructure enjoys a certain independence of its own, so also does the political. Here we find another, closely related gap in Goldmann's understanding. He acknowledges the effects of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on Malraux without drawing the appropriate conclusion—that the history of the U.S.S.R. and of the Comintern played a more crucial role in determining Malraux's intellectual development than did the movement of capitalism from its 'second' to its 'third' phase. Goldmann's analysis recognizes in theory the existence of intermediary factors between the writer and the economic infrastructure, but only in theory. He virtually ignores the history of the organized working-class movement and its influence on such a writer as Malraux. This is perhaps because Goldmann himself has little or no confidence in the proletariat's capacity for revolutionary action. In this respect he is a very heterodox Marxist indeed.

Finally, it is well to remember that literature as an element in the social totality consists of more than the men of genius. Yet Goldmann relies for his evidence almost exclusively on such names as Goethe, Balzac, Flaubert, Kafka, Joyce and Camus, as well as on the most fashionable contemporary writers…. The great mass of novels produced today owe nothing to Robbe-Grillet and very little to Kafka or Joyce. They are novels of character, and they have heroes, 'problematical' or otherwise. The critic who is going to emerge with a plausible sociology of literature will have had to read thousands of novels and to have considered the problem of supply and demand as it exists among millions of readers. It is a paradox of Marxist literary criticism that it so often ignores the many and embraces only the few. (p. 218)

David Caute, "After Lukács: The Literary Criticism of Lucien Goldmann," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3359, July 14, 1966 (and reprinted in his Collisions: Essays and Reviews, Quartet Books, 1974, pp. 208-18).


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