Leo Lowenthal 1932

On Sociology of Literature

Source: Literature and Mass Culture. Communication in Society, Volume 1. Leo Lowenthal, published by Transcation Books, 1984;
Transcribed: Andy Blunden.


History of literature is in a unique way subject to the difficulties which arise with every historical effort. Not only is it implicated in all theoretical discussions concerning the conceptual meaning and material structure of history, but, in addition, its object of study falls into the realm of numerous scientific disciplines. Over and beyond the techniques involved in the critical analysis of sources, numerous disciplines step forward with a variety of claims, among them philosophy, aesthetics, psychology, pedagogy, philology and even statistics. When we turn to day-to-day practice, however, we find that literary studies have become scientific jetsam. Everybody, from the “naive reader” to the presumably legitimate teacher with special expertise, is prepared to launch interpretations of literary texts in the most arbitrary and capricious ways. Knowledge of a language combined with the conviction that an adequate technical terminology can be dispensed with, are considered sufficient prerequisites to engage in such ventures. On the other hand, academics have thus far not developed methods of research and analysis which would do justice to the complexity of their object of study. This is not a wholesale indictment of every single specialized work; rather, what I am concerned with here are the prevailing principles underlying today’s study of literary history and literary criticism.

Virtually all of the scholars who contributed to the collection of essays Die Philosophie der Literaturwissenschaft (The Philosophy of Literary Studies) are in agreement that a “scientific” approach to the history of literature would lead nowhere. Not only do they believe — and rightly so — that each literary work contains some nonrational elements, they also consider any rational approach inadequate with regard to the very nature of the object under investigation. Consequently, the study of literature as it was founded in the nineteenth century is condemned and rejected as “historical pragmatism,” as “historicizing psychologism,” and as “positivistic method.” Certainly, Hermann Hettner’s or Wilhelm Scherer’s works lack absolute validity; indeed, they would never have claimed it. But all attempts to deal with literature which profess to a scholarly character have to draw critically on the scientific methods of the nineteenth century.

Isolation and simplification of a literary historical object is admittedly achieved in an exceedingly sublime process. Author and work become abstracted from the matrix of historical circumstances, and molded into a kind of predictable coalescence from which the diverse manifold of details and dimensions has been drained. Through this reification they acquire a dignity and worthiness which no other cultural phenomenon can boast. “In the history of literature acts and actors are ‘givens,’ whereas in world history we are presented with more or less falsified accounts of mostly shady dealings by rarely identifiable dealers.” True dignity is reserved only for such historical phenomena which are a manifestation of the mind, or may be perceived at least as existing in a unique domain. of course, only when an object of investigation is not considered part of inner and outer nature and its variable conditions, but instead has to be ontologically conceived as a creation of a higher kind, do positivistic methods prove fundamentally insufficient. With the confidence of a philosophical instinct, the concept of structure introduced by Dilthey, which was based on historical contextuality, is abandoned and replaced by the concept of the organic “that clearly, unambiguously and decisively characterizes the spiritual as the individualization in history determined by unity of meaning."’ Ambiguous terms such as “work ... .. form,” “content,” proclaim a metaphysically grounded unity of author and work, transcending and negating all diversity. This radical estrangement from historical reality finds its purest expressions in concepts such as “classicism” and “romanticism” which are not only relegated to history, but also metaphysically transfigured. “Like the superordinate concept of eternity, both the concept of perfection and of infinity are derived from historical and psychological experience as well as from philosophical knowledge.”

This rigid and in itself irrational stance on the part of those representing literary scholarship today presumes its legitimation in the fact that the “methods of the natural sciences” analyze their object into bits and pieces, and when attempting to define its ‘,'vital poetic soul,” these methods cannot help but miss entirely its “secret."’ The significance of these statements is hard to grasp. For nobody has ever demonstrated why, and to what extent, an object would be harmed or distorted by a rational approach. Any study of a phenomenon can be mindful of its wholeness, its “Gestalt,” while being conscious of a selective methodology. Admittedly, such an analysis will only yield the elements of a mosaic whose sum never represents the whole. But where on earth does scientific analysis exhaust itself in nothing but a summation of fractured parts? And are the methods of the natural sciences exclusively atomistic in nature? Certainly not, and neither do methods of literary analysis have to be, if they are inappropriate to a specific task. On their journey into the vagaries of metaphysics, the literary scholars also appropriated the concept of law. However, rather than to identify law with order and regularity which can be submitted to scrutiny and observation, the concept, from the start, is burdened with a troublesome new and vague meaning. Instead of the search for regularity there appears a “unity of meaning,” and the “artistic personality” and the “poetic work” are identified, among others, as the major problems of literary studies, problems which seem to be resolved before they have been investigated. Yet, personality and work belong to those conceptual constructs which thwart any theoretical effort precisely because they are opaque and finite.

In as much as these fashionable literary scholars point to the pitfalls involved in seeking to understand the relationship of author and work through, for instance, mere philological data analysis, I have no quarrel with this antipositivistic attitude. But precisely when it comes to an evaluation of a work of art and its qualitative aspects, an understanding of its intrinsic merit and its authenticity — questions so much at the center of the concerns of these scholars — their methods reveal their utter inadequacy. The question of whether and to what extent the literary artist consciously applies conventions of form, can only be explored by rational means. But the metaphysical mystification so prevalent in contemporary literary studies impedes any sober reflection and scholarship. Its tasks are not only historical in nature; I would like to refer to Dilthey’s concept of Verstehen (understanding) and its particular emphasis on the relationship between the author and his work. Admittedly, the demystification of investigative approaches to literature cannot be achieved by means of a formal poetics alone. What is needed above all is a psychology of art, i.e. a study of the psychological interaction between artist, artistic creation and reception. What is not needed, however, is a psychology that places the “great work of art” in a mystical relationship “with the people,” and that finds the “personal biography of the author . . . interesting and necessary, but unessential with regard to the act of artistic creation.”


In contrast to the vague declamatory statements so characteristic of Jungian psychology, the classical Freudian model of psychoanalysis has already made important theoretical contributions to a psychology of art. Some of its proponents have discussed central questions of literature, particularly those dealing with the psychic conditions under which great works of art originate, specifically the origins and structure of artistic imagination, and last not least, the question of the relationship between the artistic work and its reception which so far has been ignored or at least insufficiently explored. Admittedly, some of these psychoanalytic propositions are not yet polished and refined enough and remain somewhat schematic. But to reject the assistance of scientific psychology in the study of art and literature does not provide protection from “a barbarian assault of conquerers,” as one contemporary literary mandarin put it, but rather is a “barbarian” argument itself!

Coupled with the condemnation of “historicizing psychologism,” which cannot explore the secret of the “authentic poetic soul,” is the repudiation of accepted historical methodology and particularly of any theory of historical causality, in short, what in modern literary scholarship is anathematized as “positivistic materialism.” But as in the case of psychology, the trend setters take liberties: modern literary scholarship has no qualms and even consistently makes use of grand historical categories such as “folk, society, humanity” or the “pluralistic, aspiring” and the “spiritualizing, articulating experience.” There is mention of ,,associations of essence and fate,” of “perfection and infinity” as “conceptual basis” of “historical experience”;” while the phraseology of the “age of Homer, Pericles, Augustus, Dante, Goethe” is acceptable, any historically and sociologically oriented theoretical approach will meet with scorn and contempt when it attempts to understand literature as a social phenomenon in combination with the positivistic and materialistic methods which evolved out of the historical scholarship of the nineteenth century. The bluntly stated objective is “the abandonment of the descriptive vantage point of positivism and the return to a commitment to the metaphysical character of the Geisteswissenschaften (humanities).” We shall see that such “abandonment” is demanded with even greater determination once the theory of historical materialism replaces traditional historical description. Even the boundary between scholarship and demagogery is obscured when the anti-historical transfiguration of a work of art has to be maintained: “Historical pragmatism may perhaps conclude that syphilis led to the disappearance of Minnesang and its polygamous convention, or that the currency reform of 1923 gave rise to Expressionism. ... The essence of Minnesang and Expressionism remains unaffected by such findings. The question here is not why is it but what is it? The ‘why’ would simply lead to an infinite regress: Why at the end of the Middle Ages was lues spread, why at the beginning of 1924 was the Reichsmark introduced, and so on until the egg of Leda.” This kind of rhetoric makes a caricature of any legitimate scholarly inquiry. By no means do causal questions require infinite regress; clearly stated they can be precisely answered, even if new questions might be posed by this answer. An investigation of the reasons for Goethe’s move to Weimar does not require an investigation of the history of urban development in Germany!

Considering the current situation of literary scholarship as sketched in the preceding outline, its precarious relationship to psychology, history, and social science, the arbitrariness in the selection of its categories, the artificial isolation and scientific alienation of its object, one might agree with a modern literary historian who, dissatisfied with the “rnetaphysicalization” that has invaded his discipline, calls for the return to strict scientific standards, a passionate devotion to material, a deep concern for pure knowledge; in short, a new “appreciation of knowledge and learning.” If Franz Schultz, however, simultaneously rejects any overarching theory,” he does not have the courage of his own convictions. In fact, it is possible to conceive of a theoretical approach to literature which remains faithful to “knowledge and learning” and interprets literary works historically and sociologically, avoiding the pitfalls of both either descriptive positivism or mere metaphysical speculation.


Such concern with the historical and sociological dimensions of literature requires a theory of history and society. This is not to say that one is limited to vague theorizing about the relationships between literature and society in general, nor that it is necessary to speak in generalities about social conditions which are required for the emergence of literature. Rather, the historical explanation of literature has to address the extent to which particular social structures find expression in individual literary works and what function these works perform in society. Man is involved in specific relations of production throughout his history. These relations present themselves socially as classes in struggle with each other, and the development of their relationship forms the real basis for the various cultural spheres. The specific structure of production, i.e. the economy, is the independent explanatory variable not only for the legal forms of property and organization of state and government but, at the same time, for the shape and quality of human life in each historical epoch. It is illusionary to assume an autonomy of the social superstructure, and this is not altered through the use of a scientific terminology claiming such autonomy. As long as literary history is exclusively conceived as Geistesgeschichte, it will remain powerless to make cogent statements, even though in practice the talent and sensibilities of a literary historian may have produced something of interest. A genuine, explanatory history of literature must proceed on materialistic principles. That is to say, it must investigate the economic structures as they present themselves in literature, as well as the impact which the materialistically interpreted work of art has in the economically determined society.

Such a demand along with the social theory which it presupposes, has a dogmatic ring unless it specifies its problematic. This has been achieved to a large extent in the fields of economics and political history, but even in the area of literary studies fledgling attempts have been made. Worthy of mention are Franz Mehring’s essays on literary history which, sometimes using a simplified and popular, sometimes a narrowly defined political approach, have for the first time attempted to apply the theory of historical materialism to literature. But as in the case of the aforementioned psychological studies, the work of Mehring and other scholars of his persuasion has either been ignored or even ridiculed by literary historians. A sociologist of culture recently referred to “such a conceptual framework not only as unsociological or incompatible with scientific sociology,” but also comparable to “a parasitic plant” that “draws off the healthy sap of a tree.”

The materialistic explanation of history cannot afford to proceed in the simplifying and isolating manner so characteristic for the academic establishment of literary history, interpretation, and criticism. Contrary to common assertions, this theory neither postulates that culture in its entirety can be explained in terms of economic relations, nor that specific cultural or psychological phenomena are nothing but reflections of the social substructure. Rather, a materialistic theory places its emphasis on mediation: the mediating processes between a mode of production and the modes of cultural life including literature. Psychology must be considered as one of the principal mediating processes, particularly in the field of literary studies, since it describes the psychic processes by means of which the cultural functions of a work of art reproduce the structures of the societal base. In as much as the basis of each society in history can be seen as the relationship between ruling and ruled classes and is, in fact, a metabolic process between society and nature, literature-like all other cultural phenomena — will make this relationship transparent. For that reason the concept of ideology will be decisive for the social explanation of all phenomena of the superstructure from legal institutions to the arts. Ideology is false consciousness of social contradictions and attempts to replace them with the illusions of social harmony. Indeed, literary studies are largely an investigation of ideologies.

The often-voiced criticism that the theory of historical materialism lacks methodological refinement and possesses a crude conceptual apparatus can easily be countered: the proponents of this theory have never avoided the discussion of its flaws. Its findings and results have always been open to the scrutiny of other scholars, as well as to possible theoretical changes prompted by new experiences in social reality. Historical materialism has certainly not taken refuge in quasi-ontological imagery which, seductive and enchanting as it might be, connotes a spurious philosophy of knowledge. As long as a theory does not consider itself finite but rather continuously sustained and possibly altered by new and different experiences the frequent accusation that historical materialism ultimately contains an element of faith seems of little consequence.


The following examples are intended to illustrate the application of historical materialism to literary studies and will address questions of form, motif, and content.

Beginning with the issue of form I should like to consider the problem of the encyclopedic novel as it exists in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine or in Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart. Both seek to represent, through their all-encompassing narratives, the society of their time in its entirety with all its living and dead inventory, occupations, and forms of state, passions, and domestic furnishings. Their aim appears anchored in the bourgeois-rationalist belief that, in principle, it is possible to possess the world through thought and to dominate it through intellectual appropriation. In the case of BaIzac, this rationalism is mediated by his adherence to a mercantilist model of the economy which supposedly allows government to regulate society in an orderly fashion — a Balzac anachronism rooted in his peculiar psychological infatuation with the ancien regime. In the case of Zola, however, one faces a critical orientation toward the capitalist mode of production and the hope of remedying its deficiencies through a critical analysis of the society it conditions. The breadth of each of these cyclic novels reveals just as much about the author and his place in a class society as it does about the theoretical and moral position he adopts toward the social structure of his time.

Social meanings present themselves in more specific issues as well. The same literary form, for instance, can have a completely different social meaning in different contexts. One example would be the emphasis on dialogue and the resulting limitation of the narrative voice or commentative inserts in the text. The works of Gutzkow and Spielhagen and the impressionist writers are paradigmatic for this style. Gutzkow was probably the first to introduce into German literature the modern bourgeois dialogue. The history of the dialogue in narrative texts is that of a development from a tradition of stiff conventions to the spontaneous, open conversational technique of the present. The dialogue is in reality the criterion of the varying degrees of psychological astuteness which the freely competing members of capitalist society, at least in its liberal epoch, are able to demonstrate. Those who are more adroit and possess superior insight into the response mechanisms of their interlocutors also have superior chances of economic success, so long as the situation is not controlled by crude power relations which would make any discussion impossible in the first place. The function of the conversational form in the literature of the Junges Deutschland (Young Germany: the liberal intelligentsia of the 1830s and 1840s), which was almost entirely oblivious of its social context, is only indirectly identifiable, and in Spielhagen appears burdened by a kind of theory. The epic narrative insert has been reduced to a minimum, creating the impression that the author’s arrangement of events has been dictated by the demands of reality, i.e. the verbalized interactions of the novel’s characters, and that he has drastically reduced authorial interference through actions, events, and incidents as well as their authorial interpretation. Beginning with the later Fontane and Sudermann up until Arthur Schnitzler’s last novellas, the impressionist novella makes extensive use of the uncommented dialogue. But this “renunciation of the privileges of the interpreting and supplementing narrator” has one meaning and function in Spielhagen and another in the German impressionists.

Spielhagen’s technique is based on the conviction that through the conversations of people social reality becomes transparent to the reflective reader who then will discover their underlying theory about human and societal relations. A bourgeois idealist, Spielhagen believes in the power of the objective mind which materializes in the articulated thoughts of men so that the free exchange of dialogue can leave no doubt as to the substantive convictions of the author. In contrast, the ascetic absence of commentary characteristic for the impressionists, is an expression of the self-criticism liberal bourgeois society pronounced on itself since the beginning of the twentieth century. The inability to formulate a theory of society, the increasing insecurity, if not helplessness, of the German middle class, resulted in fact in a mentality of relativism, a loss of confidence in the subjective mind which believed in the possibility of universally applicable knowledge. While Gutzkow’s groping increments in dialogue reflect the economic gropings of a liberal bourgeoisie in Germany in the first stages of upward mobility and while the novellistic technique of Spielhagen celebrates its social victory, the impressionist style reflects its crisis: it either hides this crisis with an ideological film or admits to it through pointless conversations which lead nowhere.

Other class relationships reveal themselves when one compares the technique of the narrative frame in the novellas of Theodor Storm and C. F. Meyer. This literary device fulfills radically opposed functions in the work of these authors. Storm assumes a posture of resignation, of renunciatory retrospection. He is the weary, petty bourgeois pensioner whose world has collapsed, a world in which he could hope to engage in affairs of social importance. Time has run out; the only sustenance the present still offers are “framed,” idealized remembrances of the past. Memory is capable of recovering only those fragments of the past that do not immediately bear on the gloomy present and therefore do not have to be repressed. In the case of Meyer, on the other hand, the narrative frames of his novellas quite literally serve as the magnificent frames of a glorious painting, and as such function as indicators of the worthiness of the image they enclose and are meant to separate the unique, which is all that matters, from the indifferent diversity of appearances. The same stylistic device which in Storm’s world symbolizes the modest, the small and the waning, is used by Meyer as the symbol of vital reality. While the petty bourgeois soul of Storm quietly mourns, Meyer thrusts his characters into a world that corresponds to the feudal daydreams of the German upper classes in the 1870s.

As a final example of the sociological implications in problems of form, I shall briefly consider the use of pictorial imagery. For Lessing the aesthetician, the pictorial has no place in literary arts. For Meyer it is a favorite artistic device. The progress of humanity in historical time, the development of mankind are the important issues for Lessing, who was a firm believer in the future. He was an early champion of a rising bourgeois society which saw in the tensions and resolutions of a drama the paradigm for the conflicts and possible resolutions in society. Meyer is the heir to this dramatic tradition, but the surviving victors are now limited to the members of the upper class. Where Lessing is a dramatist, Meyer has become a sculptor. Where the former animates, the latter in fact halts the motion of progress. If for Lessing art expresses a universalist morality binding for all men, a morality which transcends individual idiosyncracies, it is for Meyer the extraordinary and the unique in selected individuals that finds expression in art. Magnificently framed, the infinite diversity of reality is condensed into the great moments of great individuals and eternalized as in a painting, transcending time and place. This ideological position mirrors precisely the self-image of the dominant strata of the bourgeoisie in the last third of the nineteenth century, for which the social world is but an opportunity for the development of the great personality, in short, the social elite. Its members stand aloof from trivial everyday cares and live surrounded by significant people, great ideals and important affairs which all reflect and confirm their uniqueness.

A motif that likewise serves to glorify economic power positions is the motif of boredom in the novels of Stendhal. Boredom is as fatal as death for “the happy few” who alone are entitled to read his books and for whom alone he chooses to write. These happy few, far removed from the consequences of an economically limited existence, are entitled to pursue their happiness according to their own autonomous morality. Just as Stendhal is the supreme novelist of the bourgeois aristocracy in the age of Napoleon, so Gustav Freytag sings the praise of the German mid-nineteenth century bourgeoisie which he transfigures by denying any knowledge of its contradictions that are evident in the division, organization and remuneration of labor. In as much as Freytag applies an undifferentiated concept of “work” to the equally undifferentiated concept of “the people,” (two concepts Stendhal would have never used) he successfully overlooked, in a literal sense, the antagonistic social order with its competing and feuding classes. Ideology comes to the fore at the very beginning of his major work Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit) which has as its motto the words of Julian Schmidt: “The novel ought to look for the German people where they are at their virtuous best, that is, at work.”

I should like to touch upon the death motif as it is struck repeatedly in Mörike’s Maler Nolten (Painter Nolten) and Meyer’s Jurg Jenatsch. Mörike’s world is that of the Biedermeier of the honest man, the not yet politically emancipated bourgeois in the period of the Vormarz, I.e. in the period between the Vienna Congress and the, in fact, abortive revolutions of 1848-49. In his novels, the death motif may be interpreted as a harbinger of the political defeat of the bourgeoisie in his generation. The motifs of transience, fate, and death serve as ideological metaphors for the political impotence of the middle class in his time of which he himself was a prototype. By contrast, in the stories of Meyer, death takes on the aspect of a highly intensified moment in the fullness of life. When Lucretia kills Jurg Jenatsch this deed marks also the beginning of her own physical destruction. What is in fact a violent double murder is presented as the expression of heroic lifestyles. Only Jurg and Lucretia are worthy of one another, they represent a rare and perfect balance of character and fate; only by virtue of this singular congruity do these two have the right to eliminate each other. The solidarity of the international ruling minority proves itself unto death.

Finally, turning to content, I once more refer to Freytag and Meyer. Both wrote historical novels and short stories. Freytag’s collected works might be called the textbook of the conformist middle class, exhorting the virtues and perils of its members. The study of history is not seen as an occasion for intellectual enjoyment for its own sake, but for its pedagogic values. Either for the purpose of warning or emulation, it contains the history of individuals and groups intended to teach future generations lessons of social competence which might help them avoid the dubious fate of the aristocracy or the sordid fate of the lower classes. If this stance toward history is a manifestation of the self-image of a bourgeoisie struggling for its existence with tenacious diligence, then, by contrast, Meyer’s selective approach to history may be dubbed a “historicism of the upper bourgeoisie.” When history is constituted randomly from disjoint events, the abundance of historical phenomena is forced into a dim twilight and the chain of diachronic experiences itself has no significance at all. There is no continuum of events of any interpretable character, be it causal, theological or otherwise teleological in nature. Political, economic cultural changes carry no weight and the flow of history is in itself without importance. The historian turns spectator taking pleasure in observing the singular like a magnificent drama. Thus the category of play penetrates real history as much as historical research to the extent that history’s diversity and complexity is reduced to a puppet theater of heroes whose lives and activities are reconstituted for the playful enjoyment of the spectator-interpreter. An upper-class bourgeois likes his favorite historian to be an aesthete.

Another example for the exploration of content is the question of politics. In Gottfried Keller we find an almost bold disregard for economic realities, but considerable emphasis is placed on the political sphere, whether in occasional caricaturization of armchair politics or in the informed and competent conversations of the burgher in the Fahnlein der sieben Aufrechten (The Seven Upright) on topics of general import. To identify politics as the supreme, if not exclusive arena for the confrontation and final settlement of public affairs, is characteristic for social groups which, on the one hand, experience themselves as economically secure, but whose social mobility, on the other hand, is limited. All through the nineteenth century the middle class is inclined to look at politics as a resource for arbitration between competing groups and individuals, as, literally, a “middle"-way. This notion of the middle station, incidentally, was already fervently glorified in the fictional and pamphlet literature read by the English middle class in the eighteenth century. In the case of Stendhal, politics does not function as an ideological device, rather, consciously or not, he acts as spokesman for the upper class of his time who considered political dealings part of economic transactions and conflicts, and governments nothing more than business partners of big business itself.

It has always been of great interest to me why a task as important as the study of the reception of literature among various social groups has been so utterly neglected even though a vast pool of research material is available in journals and newspapers, in letters and memoirs. A materialistic history of literature, unhampered by the anxious protection of the literary arts by its self-styled guardians and without fear of getting stranded in a quagmire of routine philology or mindless data collection, is well prepared to tackle this task.