Lucien Goldmann

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George Lichtheim

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[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 sense of its intermediate position between the Court and the Third Estate—then where does one draw the line between mundane and metaphysical preoccupations? For M. Goldmann the 'paradoxical situation' in which this group found itself in France around 1660 … is not simply an accidental background to the work of Pascal and Racine: it provides, he says, 'the infrastructure for the tragic paradox of Phèdre and of the Pensées.' Now infrastructure is a dangerous word: it leads to superstructure, and once one begins to think in such terms it is not easy to escape the conclusion that what the Jansenists believed was 'mere ideology'. Marx never made this mistake, but his followers did, and even M. Goldmann, for all his sophistication, once or twice goes very near the edge.

The basic argument appears to be this: the crisis of the 17th century involved both a new system of government and a new picture of man and society. It did so because medieval doctrine was no longer adequate, and this inadequacy came out both in the Cartesian demolition of the traditional world-view, and in the subterfuges to which the Jesuits (enemies of both the Jansenists and of Descartes) were driven in their attempt to salvage the Aristotelian-Thomist heritage. As opponents of the Court, the Jansenists were able to evolve a 'paradoxical' or 'tragic' philosophy, while it was left for the...

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Enlightenment of the following century to step into the Cartesian inheritance. Descartes was both too much of an optimist, and too much of a concealed atheist, to satisfy the religious craving which found expression in Jansenism. The Jesuits distrusted him, but the Jansenists … were even less inclined to follow him. They correctly sensed that his rationalism left no room for the living God whom they sought. Pascal and Racine reflect the Jansenist predicament at the ultimate—metaphysical or poetic—level. They are in some sense the precursors of Kant, Hegel and Marx, in that they intuitively sense the 'dialectical' character of reality—a reality from which 'God is absent'…. As committed Christians they fell back upon an irrational faith where their modern successors have gone forward to a rational one. What then connects them with Hegel and Marx? Primarily the fact that they felt obliged to undertake a desperate 'wager' on the reality of theDeus absconditus, where the modern Hegelian wagers on the future of man and the rationality of the historical universe.

It will now, I hope, have become clear why M. Goldmann's exegesis of Pascal and Racine has left its mark upon French intellectuals who might have been supposed to know the subject by heart. If Borkenau's pioneering work is set aside (unfortunately it was never translated), he may be said to have introduced his readers to a novel interpretation of an important chapter in their own history. This is sufficient claim to eminence. Without going so far as to say that he has botched an important theme, it is permissible to feel that he has not quite made the most of his opportunity. Yet The Hidden God is a work of genuine intellectual distinction and, for all its repetitiveness and turgidity, well worth reading (especially in the French original). It is not, I think, the revelation for which the New Left has been waiting; but it comes to grips with fundamentals, and even its failure is a kind of triumph. (pp. 322-23)

George Lichtheim, "From Pascal to Marx," in New Statesman (© 1964 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXVIII, No. 1747, September 4, 1964, pp. 322-23.

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