Lucien Goldmann – Class and Literature

Lucien Goldmann is a marxist theorist of the arts who argued that social class shapes the worldview of authors.

Lucien Goldmann is a Marxist theorist of the arts. He argued that great works of literature reflected the (sometimes contradictory) class positions of those who wrote them.

The Expression of Class WorldViews

In The Hidden God (1964) Goldmann developed a theory about the French writers Pascal and Racine.

He argued that the social class to which one belongs is the most important thing when it comes to the production of intellectual and creative works.

Humans in the ‘subject class’ need to spend most of their time devoted to physical survival while those in the ‘dominant class’ need to spend their time maintaining that dominance.

Class thus tends to be the most influential factor in shaping people’s world views and thus their creative and intellectual output!

Goldmann argued that most people only have a dim perception of class consciousness, but a few exceptional individuals are class conscious and able to express this clearly.

Pascal and Racine

Goldmann believed that Pascal and Racine were two such ‘exceptional individuals’ who were aware of their class consciousness, both of whom belonged to a social class which Goldman referred to as the ‘Noblesse de Robe’ in 17th century France.

The Noblesse de Robe consisted of legal and administrative professionals who were employed by the state, which was partially controlled by the monarchy.

These individuals thus had a conflicted worldview which partially reflected the authoritarian traditions of the monarchy but also the more rational ‘new bourgeoise’ worldview associated with their professions.

The contradiction between these two world views comes through in the tragedies that Pascal and Racine wrote, which tended to focus on how it was impossible to succeed in the rational world and to please God at the same time.

In the words of Goldmann the central theme of the Noblesse’s tragedies was:

“that everything that God demands is impossible in the eyes of the world, and that everything that is possible when we follow the rules of this world ceases to exist when the eye of God lights upon it”

Evaluation of Goldmann

On the positive side Lucien Goldmann’s analysis is more subtle than Berger’s who simply argues that art reflects ruling class ideology.

At least in Goldmann’s theory the authors are conscious actors expressing their own class consciousness.

Criticisms of Goldmann

  1. He may overemphasise the role of class in shaping the worldview of authors. For Feminist, for example, gender is more important in this, as is ethnicity and the experience (or lack of) of colonialism.
  2. Even if class is the prominent influencer of art, other factors such as gender probably play a role too!
  3. Goldmann assumes that a social class can possess a clear ideology, express that ideology and that there is one clear interpretation of this one ideology. Poststructuralists argue that there are multiple interpretations of multiple realities.

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