Lucien Goldmann David Caute - Essay

David Caute

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)