Archive: April 4th, 2009

Lucien Goldmann: Towards a Sociology of the Novel

[Readings] (04.04.09, 3:13 pm)

Goldmann’s work derives directly from Lukacs and Girard. The main contents and work of the book is in connecting Marxist cultural economics to the forms and values of the novel. The novel is a social product, and is thus shaped by social and cultural forces. Because the modern period is heavily influenced by capitalism, the values of capitalism are ingrained in modern works. Goldmann is specifically interested in how these values appear and are expressed within the novel, and this is done through analysis of character, individual values, morality, and other such concepts that appear in fiction.

The study consists of both general claims as well as specific ones. The heart of Goldmann’s study is in his analysis of the novels of Malreaux, which is unfortunate, because I am not remotely familiar with Malreaux. My interests will be focused on Goldmann’s general claims, but it should be noted that these claims are backed up with some degree of focused study.

There is a very good paragraph in the preface, which explains what his intentions are:

In so far as the tendency to coherence that constitutes the essence of the work is situated not only at the level of the individual creator,  but already at that of the group, the approach by which this group is seen as the true subject of creation may account for the whole of the writer and integrate him in its analysis, whereas the reverse does not appear to be the case. (p. ix; italics original)

Introduction to the Problems of a Sociology of the Novel

The point of this section is to illustrate a homology between structure in classical novel and the structure of exchange in market economics. To do this, Goldmann begins by explaining theories of how the novel is a social product, and is shaped by the values of its culture. He builds from Lukacs and Girard, in identifying the basic structures of the novel. The central feature of this is that the novel is a search. It is a search of a degraded hero for authentic values in a degraded world. The concept of degradation is important, and involves a degree of falseness. The hero’s search is itself degraded, meaning that the intentions are not genuine, but this does not mean that the authentic values are false. Goldmann’s concept of degredation is a bridge between Lukacs’s term “demoniacal” and Girard’s term “idolatrous.”

The authentic values being sought are implicit within the text, they are not explicitly specified, but they are intrinsic to the social system of which the novel is a product. The hero is problematic, in searching for these authentic values within the degraded world. However, both the hero and the world are degraded, which leads to a complexity. Goldmann explains this as a typology, which is borrowed from Lukacs: (p. 2)

  1. The abstract idealist novel: the hero is overly narrow in comparison to complexity of world (Don Quixote, Le Rouge et le Noir)
  2. The psychological novel: characterized by the inner lives of the characters, their consciousness is too broad to be satisfied by the limited conventions of world (Oblomov, L’Education sentimentale)
  3. Bildungsroman: concludes with the hero giving up the problematic search, and ends with self-imposed limitation, changing neither the world’s nor the hero’s values or natures (Wilhelm Meister, Der grune Heinrich)

In the novel, the relationship between the writer and the world is different from other literary forms, because the novel is both a biography and social chronicle. This relationship between the writer and the world is what Girard calls humor and Lukacs calls irony. This also resembles what Bakhtin describes as the novel’s inherent comic dimension. At this point, the influences of Lukacs and Girard diverge: Girard finds the humor problematic, while Lukacs is permissive of it.

The concern seems to be over what to make of the moral dimensions of the novel’s resolution. Lukacs goes so far as to say that the author’s ethics becomes an aesthetic problem of the work. This introduces the need for sociology: not only does the novel reflect the social values of its context, but it concerns the deeper problems of reification, how the content of fiction and the fictional reality bears on and is considered real outside of fiction. For this, a true sociological analysis is necessary. Goldman relates novelistic problems to those of value in production, in classic Marxist analysis:

“The novel form seems to me, in effect, to be the transposition on the literary plane of everyday life in the individualistic society created by market production. There is a rigorous homology between the literary form of the novel, as I have defined it with the help of Lukacs and Girard, and the everyday relation between man and commodities in general, and by extension between men and other men, in a market society.”

This involves the relationship between use values and exchange values. Goldmann relates these to the implicit values that are the “authentic values” in fictional worlds. This also relates to the idea of relationships between problematic individuals and degraded values.

Marxist literary sociology has the potential to offer a few ideas, summaraized here: (p. 9)

  1. The literary work is not merely the reflection of collective consciousness, but a constructed or possible consciousness.
  2. The relationship between collective ideology and creations is not in identity of content, but in a homology of structures.
  3. A world view cannot be created by a single individual, but must be created by a group. The individual can only transpose this view on the realm of the imaginary.
  4. Collective consciousness is not a reality, but is expressed implicitly in the behavior of individuals.

Thus, the study of the sociology of the novel is not a study of the collective conscious, but rather, an unconscious. This study reveals values and meanings that are internalized and ordinarily invisible. They emerge and are placed within artifacts (such as the novel) without express intentions, but are inevitable and automatic.

It is interesting at this point to take a step back and compare the sociology of the novel as described by Goldmann to a possible sociology of the video game that might be applied to modern day games. Games are an interesting target to apply this analysis, because they are already made of rules. Not all rules are explicitly coded (or part of the game), of course, many dimensions of sociological analysis may be found in static assets, or even file formats and platforms, that are not part of the game’s “rules” explicitly. I think it would be interesting to consider the expressions and conventions of games within this sphere of criticism. Indeed, the idea of the problematic search of the hero for authentic values in a degraded world seems to be intertwined with Campbell’s monomyth, which is itself the basis for many plots of mainstream games.

There is an interesting point of comparison as well, between the spheres of the idealistic hero, who is too simple for the complex world, and the psychological hero, who is too complex for the simple world, and the relationship between the player, the avatar, and the range of actions and expression. Very often, players get frustrated with the limited capacities for the responses or actions that they may take within game worlds.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorGoldmann, Lucien
TitleTowards a Sociology of the Novel
Tagssociology, narrative, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon