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  • The Wager of Lucien Goldmann: Tragedy, Dialectics and a Hidden God
  • David Wetsel
The Wager of Lucien Goldmann: Tragedy, Dialectics and a Hidden God, by Mitchell Cohen; xi & 351 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, $35.00.

Students of Pascal’s Pensées for the most part know Lucien Goldmann because of his 1959 landmark study, The Hidden God. Still controversial after thirty-five years, Goldmann’s theories concerning the Pensées have never been accepted by mainstream Pascal scholarship. Jean Mesnard, France’s leading expert on Pascal, wrote in 1976 that “Goldmann’s Pascal is perhaps tragic, but he is most certainly a Molinist.” Mesnard, however, went on to acknowledge that no other critic before Goldmann had recognized the extent to which Pascal occupies a permanent place in the history of ideas. “To criticize Goldmann,” Mesnard went so far to say, “risks making Pascal less powerful.”

Most pascalisants have erroneously assumed that Goldmann’s reading of Pascal represented nothing more than the imposition of Marxist theory upon the text of the Pensées. Among the revelations of Mitchell Cohen’s new study is that, to the contrary, Pascal represents one of the essential formative influences on Goldmann himself: “By the time he returned to Paris after the war, Goldmann was thoroughly conversant with Pascal’s oeuvre. . . . The appeal to him of Pascal was natural; Pascal was both a believer and a scientist. . . . [Goldmann] stated that were he to rewrite [Kant] he would assert that ‘Pascal was the first’ in the history of dialectical thought” (p. 48).

Students of Pascal will be particularly fascinated by Cohen’s revealing analysis of Goldmann’s The Hidden God in the first section of chapter six of his study. Cohen’s account of Goldmann’s Towards a Sociology of the Novel (1964) and of his essays on Genet will likewise fascinate students of literature. However, The Wager of Lucien Goldmann goes far beyond those questions with which Goldmann’s name has been most closely associated in literary circles. The product of a painstaking excavation of Goldmann’s philosophical development, Cohen’s book recaptures a period of postwar Parisian intellectual life which drew to an end only with the events of 1968 and which has been obscured in recent years by postmodernism.

A critic both of existentialism and of structuralism, Goldmann is portrayed by Cohen as the leading representative of Western Marxist humanism. Rejecting both the doctrine of Marxism’s “scientificity” and the traditional Marxist vision of the proletariat, Goldmann insisted upon Marxism’s need to reinvent itself. Specialists in Marx, Hegel, Heidegger, and particularly Lukács will appreciate Cohen’s careful explanations of Goldmann’s links to these key thinkers. Perhaps most fascinating is his account of the debate between Goldmann and the “anti-humanists”: “When the humanist Goldmann ‘transcended’ liberalism, he did so in the specifically Hegelian sense of negating and preserving at once, absorbing what was vital into socialism, while annulling [End Page 409] its abstractions. After all, he conceived socialist humanism as the culmination and not the annulment of Western culture . . .” (p. 290).

This study, which I recommend to all students of modern France as well as to my fellow pascalisants, is, of course, not essentially meant to be a biography. Yet one sometimes finds oneself yearning for a more intimate portrait of Goldmann the man. Once he leaves his native Romania in the early 1930s, he seems to become the classical Parisian academic intellectual with no real personality of his own. Yet Cohen manages at least to neutralize Julia Kristeva’s parody of Goldmann in The Samurai, her roman à clef about French intellectuals in the 1960s, as quoted by Cohen: “Graying, pot-bellied, smiling, with his shirt open and of course no tie, he addressed everyone by the familiar tu and was always ripping up existentialism and lauding dialectical reason (as overhauled by Pascal), alienation, and the New Novel.”

David Wetsel
Arizona State University

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pp. 409-410
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