Lucien Goldmann

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Edward W. Said

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1416

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 every other detail…. This economy serves him doubly: it shows his readers that the tragic vision of Pascal and Racine and the dialectical vision (of Marx, Engels, Lukács and Goldmann himself) are profoundly similar because of their total inner coherence; and it differentiates the tragic from the dialectical by showing the tragic to be a radically static vision of reality and the dialectical totally dynamic.

The book proposes a theory of coherence, or a theory of the way in which individual parts can be said to make up a whole greater than a mere sum of its parts: this, as we shall see, has a direct bearing on the Pensées, which is ostensibly a collection of units. Coherence is the result of a working partnership between two modes of apprehending reality, the scientific and rational on the one hand and the humanistic and synthesizing on the other. Goldmann contends that the former is individualistic: the monadic consciousness; and the latter social, or at least relational: the group consciousness. Goldmann's point is that, left to itself, the first produces blind, fact-gathering positivism, while the second, freed from the discipline of individual example, becomes empty generality. The first reifies, the second hypothesizes; together, the two lead one to a sense of the totality of human experience, to a "world vision" that is organically related to its time and place. (pp. 444-45)

Most of The Hidden God is taken up with applying these notions to Pascal. Goldmann begins first with the individual pensée, then moves to Pascal's theory of knowledge, his esthetics, ethics, religion and his peculiar life. The pensée is a fragment … that formally reflects Pascal's sense of scientific discreteness…. Yet the Pensées do form a coherent body that derives its integrity from Pascal's own community with Port-Royal…. Port-Royal remained a part of the world, albeit a withdrawn and dissenting part, and this was a paradox Pascal intensely felt. The strength of his feeling is based on his conviction that Jansenism was morally right, that the world was wicked and the Church in need of reform, but that Jansenism, despite its reclusion, was irrevocably committed to concrete existence in the world.

Goldmann convincingly demonstrates that this paradox extends to Pascal's sense of God and man. For Pascal, there is no question that God exists; but because the world is morally wicked He is not apparent in it…. Man is an isolated individual in the world, lost in the eternal silence of vast expanses. Yet, as an individual, man is hateful unless he is redeemed by Christ, God the Mediator. It is here that Goldmann is most brilliant, for he shows that Pascal's Christ is "an exemplary incarnation of the tragic mind."… The final tragedy for Pascal, and for Racine in Phèdre , Goldmann argues, is that their Jansenism effectively cuts them off from the...

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future, for Port-Royal is a celibate community that denies the future by standing apart from historical process. (pp. 445-46)

Let me return now to Goldmann's ideas about coherence, ideas which seem to me useful and plausible…. Goldmann presumes that most individuals have an awareness of the "whole world," of a total reality of which they are a part, but that they cannot be said to have a full intellectual grasp of the world itself because it is simply too big. What they do, then, is to create a working notion of the world-out-there, a "world vision," in which they locate themselves (Goldmann is here following Jean Piaget). Not only are individuals limited by the finite human mind, but also by the concrete circumstances of their national, economic and political existence. Thus a "world vision" develops out of the interaction of the human mind with its surroundings and, of course, with other minds in similar circumstances. A "world vision" permits people to assume that their activity in the future will be carried out within a framework common to them and to others like them; in short, they wager on the existence of a more than personal reality that includes them but to which they also contribute. The importance of these notions to a literary critic is considerable. It permits him to speak, as Goldmann does, of the historical meaning of a writer's life, of the inner coherence of his work and of the integrity of his vision. Goldmann does this by explaining how a writer's life and work are a dynamic polity—if he is a great writer: Pascal's tragic vision, for example, is supported by his life and the development of his work.

For Goldmann the tragic vision precedes the dialectical vision and is a static, sterile paradigm of it, yet he is quite hazy about the real historical connection between the two, and he offers no suggestion as to how Pascal and Marx link up. Perhaps this is one reason why The Hidden God's major fault is its failure to state finally whether we are to take the tragic vision as an atemporal mode that simply recurs in time or as a particular historical development and occurrence. In Goldmann's reading the stasis of the tragic vision is the result of a feeling that the future is something on which one cannot wager. This is perhaps Goldmann's way of telling Existentialism that it has no future, only a present. His interest in the future, therefore, helps to make Goldmann both a Marxist and a practitioner of what in France is known as les sciences humaines, human as opposed to natural science…. (pp. 446-47)

For the most part [Goldmann] appears to be uninterested in or unaware of literary or philosophical work done in either England or America. Apart from Marx, the guarantors, so to speak, of his work are Lukács … and Jean Piaget, who for reasons which are not possible to describe is for him also a dialectician. Thus two strands unite in Goldmann: the Gallic tradition of precise observation; and the Germanic tradition of intuitionism, Weberian ideal typology and metaphysical speculation. Thus, particularity and generality, or as Goldmann puts it in Recherches Dialectiques, "dialectical materialism" is a "privileged" discipline, like philosophy itself.

The reason Goldmann will seem novel to English-speaking readers is that we have no one who does what he does. Although he writes about literature he is not really a literary critic…. He is, I suppose, a sociologist of mind, which is to say that he is concerned with studying the historical appearances or incarnations of certain structures of mind; he says in The Hidden God that he aims to construct a typology of "world visions." This strangely resembles Northrop Frye's concern in The Anatomy of Criticism, although Goldmann's historical and social committments are so urgent as to make his work antithetical to Frye's. The kind of sociological criticism Goldmann writes, however, concerns itself only with works of high esthetic value. He presumes, rightly I think, that "world visions" are best expressed by men with the furthest verbal, emotional and intellectual reach, and these men are always great writers…. (pp. 447-48)

The special value of Goldmann's work … is that it is proposed to us as a rigorous and continuing intellectual effort, that it is itself a model of the coherence it describes, that it dramatizes and makes explicit an "interpretive circle." For an "interpretive circle" is formed when man faces and is faced by, interprets and is interpreted by, his works, and if Goldmann objects to the phenomenologists' stubborn positing of the lonely ego, he is at least with them in asserting the primacy of perception and the value of historical consciousness. (p. 448)

Edward W. Said, "A Sociology of Mind" (copyright © 1966 by Partisan Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in Partisan Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 444-48.


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