Jean-Paul Sartre opens his massive, never-completed study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, by posing the following question: “what, at this point in time, can we know about a man?” (ix). Taking as his guides the sciences he considered to constitute the twin horizons of contemporary knowledge, psychoanalysis and historical materialism, he attempted to explain how the individual Gustave Flaubert could come to be the author of Madame Bovary. For all its methodological sophistication and speculative richness, The Family Idiot never goes beyond a perfectly traditional task of literary study: to understand the life of an individual through close textual exegesis of his imaginative writings, supplemented by biographical and historical evidence contiguous to but distinct in kind from those writings. The object of investigation remains the man, even when, as in the third volume, Sartre takes up the class structure and political situation in mid-nineteenth-century France. One could say of this book that, despite Sartre’s explicit intentions, it does not finally keep faith with the historical materialism it professes and that it fails to do so just because Sartre has missed the originality and specificity of historical materialism as a research program.
This paper attempts to shed some light on this general topic, to explain what are the fundamental protocols governing historical materialist research on literature. To do so, I have adopted the expedient of summarizing the argument of my recently published book on Marcel Proust, while adding some reflections on issues left largely in abeyance in that study. In pursuing this topic, I transform Sartre’s inaugural formulation [End Page 349] into the more authentically marxist question that he ought to have asked: not “what can we know about a man?” but rather, “what can be learned about a social formation in a determinate epoch of its existence from reading the imaginative literature that it has produced?” 1
Let me begin at some remove from my topic by quoting a longish passage from a standard scholarly study of John Dryden. The passage is randomly chosen (others might have served as well) to illustrate the conventional view of the relationship between history and literature and to contrast it with the view for which I argue in what follows:
Dryden’s political poetry has excited admiration and controversy from the seventeenth century to our own time. For his contemporaries . . . Dryden’s handling of topical and partisan issues must have generated much of the poetry’s immediate interest. For the twentieth-century reader this can hardly be the case. The venality of a man like Slingsby Bethel or even the political ambitions of Anthony Ashley Cooper are now the province of social and political history; the attraction of Dryden’s political poetry, like that of the political verse of all past ages, lies in the poet’s ability to transform the objects of his contempt and admiration through the language and strategies of his art . . . the poet’s conservative politics or the occasions of the individual poems are of less interest [to the modern reader] than the poetics of Dryden’s art. Such events as the coronation of Charles II, the Exclusion Crisis, and the release of Shaftesbury from imprisonment on charges of high treason retain an interest as occasions of Dryden’s poetry; but it is as literary, rather than historical, artifacts that the poems invite admiration.(Zwicker ix; emphasis added)
We may leave aside the matter of “admiration”—since one does not wish to impose one’s own sense of what is admirable on someone else—to consider the underlying assumptions that motivate this passage. It asserts that while one needs to know something about the punctual events represented in Dryden’s poetry in order to interpret it aright, these cannot constitute for the twentieth-century reader its interest and value. Rather, it is the aesthetic execution, what is somewhat [End Page 350] imprecisely termed the “poetics of Dryden’s art,” that must be for us the only significant object of attention. The matter of the poetry, its Stoff, as Goethe and Schiller called it, “are now the province of social and political history” only, not of literary study properly conceived. If this...