Genius in France

Genius in France: An Idea and Its Uses

Ann Jefferson
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Genius in France
    Book Description:

    This engaging book spans three centuries to provide the first full account of the long and diverse history of genius in France. Exploring a wide range of examples from literature, philosophy, and history, as well as medicine, psychology, and journalism, Ann Jefferson examines the ways in which the idea of genius has been ceaselessly reflected on and redefined through its uses in these different contexts. She traces its varying fortunes through the madness and imposture with which genius is often associated, and through the observations of those who determine its presence in others.

    Jefferson considers the modern beginnings of genius in eighteenth-century aesthetics and the works ofphilosophessuch as Diderot. She then investigates the nineteenth-century notion of national and collective genius, the self-appointed role of Romantic poets as misunderstood geniuses, the recurrent obsession with failed genius in the realist novels of writers like Balzac and Zola, the contested category of female genius, and the medical literature that viewed genius as a form of pathology. She shows how twentieth-century views of genius narrowed through its association with IQ and child prodigies, and she discusses the different ways major theorists-including Sartre, Barthes, Derrida, and Kristeva-have repudiated and subsequently revived the concept.

    Rich in narrative detail,Genius in Francebrings a fresh approach to French intellectual and cultural history, and to the burgeoning field of genius studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5259-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Preface
    (pp. XI-XIV)
    Ann Jefferson
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Genius is a word with a long history, two etymological origins, and, according to theOxford English Dictionary, seven distinct meanings, each with several subcategories. Yet since the eighteenth century the term has often been deployed in the Western world as if its sense were entirely obvious, with speakers relying on an assumption of cultural consensus to pass “genius” off as a self-explanatory notion. It was taken up by all the major European languages in response to the need for a word that would express the new sense of the value of exceptional creative originality. An accolade that defines its...

  6. Part I: Enlightenment Genius
    • CHAPTER 1 The Eighteenth Century: Mimesis and Effect
      (pp. 19-34)

      Any history of the modern idea of genius must start with the eighteenth century, when the secular values of the Enlightenment took hold of the notion in order to celebrate human achievement, advance intellectual and artistic innovation, and support the emergence of new disciplines and genres. It became a major topic of philosophical reflection, examined by authors such as Condillac, Vauvenargues, Helvétius, and Condorcet, who were concerned with what one might call a philosophy of mind, and by those, like Dubos, Mercier, and Marmontel whose concerns were principally with theories of art in the new discipline of aesthetics.¹ Diderot, the...

    • CHAPTER 2 Genius Obscured: Diderot
      (pp. 35-44)

      Rousseau is one of the first to articulate a view of genius that dispenses with its public when, in his entry on Genius in hisDictionnaire de musique, he suggests that the qualities required for its recognition can only be those of genius itself: “its marvels are scarcely felt by anyone who is incapable of imitating them,”imitatingbeing understood here in the positive sense that Kant later gave to the term. He concludes the entry with an admonishment to the third-party spectator when he writes, “Vulgar man, do not profane this sublime name. What use would it be to...

  7. Part II: Nineteenth-Century Genius:: The Idiom of the Age
    • CHAPTER 3 Language, Religion, Nation
      (pp. 47-60)

      In 1798 Jean-François de La Harpe introduced his eighteen-volume history of literature, theLycée, ou Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, with a discussion of genius in which he deplores what he sees as the current misuse of the term. His principal objection is that genius has come to be routinely opposed to taste, talent, and the rules of art. This opposition has fostered what he regards as a complacent and self-congratulatory assumption among the younger generation that their disdain for matters of taste is a sure sign of their own genius. Moreover, he continues, the words “genius” and “taste”...

    • CHAPTER 4 Individual versus Collective Genius
      (pp. 61-66)

      Chateaubriand and Mme de Staël each construct a view of collective genius that relates to individual genius in relatively complex ways. For Chateaubriand, the genius of Christianity goes hand in hand with the most extreme individuality, and for Mme de Staël German national genius is demonstrated by the variety of individuals of genius as well as by the variety of forms of the German language. But as time goes on, and especially when it takes the form of encomium rather than analysis, this relation is apt to lose all complexity: the individual is either a microcosmic replica of the national...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Romantic Poet and the Brotherhood of Genius
      (pp. 67-80)

      For the poet in the first decades of the century genius is conceived as a distinctly solitary affair. The cases in Vigny’sStelloare emblematic of an entire generation where poets go unheeded by the wider world, and genius is confined to private recognition. Even Moïse in Vigny’s poem of that name, who can justifiably claim to be a “Prophète centenaire, environné d’honneur” (Centenarian poet, surrounded by honor), becomes the pretext for a portrait of genius abandoned and alone.¹ The one-time leader of his people is now regarded as a stranger and he addresses God from the top of Mount...

    • CHAPTER 6 Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, and the Dynasty of Genius
      (pp. 81-88)

      In 1864, while Hugo was in exile, he returned to the topic of genius in an essay originally conceived as an introduction to the translation of the complete works of Shakespeare by his son, François-Victor. Shakespeare as a “supreme genius” is the pretext both for a lengthy discussion of genius in general and for a barely concealed statement of Hugo’s own candidacy for the title. The mode of direct address is no longer used, but like theOdesin the 1820s, Hugo’s account is presented as offering insights that he is uniquely equipped to provide. The image repertoire associated with...

  8. Part III: Genius in the Clinic
    • CHAPTER 7 Genius under Observation: Lélut
      (pp. 91-103)

      When Vigny’s Stello is laid low by an attack of the “blue devils” he is cured by a remarkably effective “physician of the soul,” Dr. Noir, who is blessed with an ability to “see to the heart of everything” and has insight that distinguishes him from the rest of humanity as well as from physicians of the body who can see no further than the surface of things. His diagnosis and cure—stories of unhappy poets—may appear unorthodox, but insight into diseases of the soul had been the basis for the recent emergence of a new medicine of the...

    • CHAPTER 8 Genius, Neurosis, and Family Trees: Moreau de Tours
      (pp. 104-113)

      The pathologizing of genius continued in the work of Jacques-Joseph Moreau—known as “Moreau de Tours”—who adopted the eloquent term “morbid psychology” for his particular branch of mental medicine and defined genius as a form of neurosis. His book on the subject,Psychologie morbide: dans ses rapports avec la philosophie de l’histoire, ou de l’influence des névropathies sur le dynamisme intellectuel(Morbid psychology: In its relations to the philosophy of history or the influence of neuropathy on intellectual dynamism), published in 1859, examines the general phenomenon of “neuropathy” rather than confining itself to the study of individual cases as...

    • CHAPTER 9 Genius Restored to Health
      (pp. 114-122)

      The pathologizing of genius reached a pitch with Cesare Lombroso’sGenio e follia, first published in 1864. Subsequently revised and expanded under the titleL’Uomo di genioin 1877, it was translated into French in 1879 asL’Homme de génie. In Lombroso’s account, genius becomes a mark of degeneracy and is associated with epilepsy and “moral insanity.” These claims are supported with numerous examples from the past, and with references to French precursors in this line of thinking, notably Lélut, Réveillé-Parise, and Moreau de Tours. The French commentators who came after Lombroso also took these authors, along with Lombroso himself,...

  9. Part IV: Failure, Femininity, and the Realist Novel
    • CHAPTER 10 A Novel of Female Genius: Mme de Staël’s Corinne
      (pp. 125-136)

      Genius is a masculine noun and is generally gendered male. In the ancient world it was a tutelary spirit reserved for men since women were provided with a Juno. It was associated with thepaterfamilias, and its begetting has invariably been viewed as a masculine rather than a feminine affair. For long enough this went without saying. But with increasing interest in the physiological basis of the mind and with the greater cultural prominence of women, there was a corresponding increase toward the end of the eighteenth century in the active assertion of the incompatibility of genius with the female...

    • CHAPTER 11 Balzacʹs Louis Lambert: Genius and the Feminine Mediator
      (pp. 137-145)

      In an essay on artists—“Des artistes” (On artists)—written in 1830 during the early days of his career as a realist novelist, Balzac makes the familiar observation that creative artists have no insight into the way that their intelligence operates. Their power may be due to “a deformity in the brain,” genius may be “a human illness as the pearl is an infirmity of the oyster,” or it may simply derive from “the exercise of a faculty common to all men,” but whatever the case, the artist operates “under the sway of certain circumstances whose combination is a mystery....

    • CHAPTER 12 Creativity and Procreation in Zolaʹs LʹŒuvre
      (pp. 146-158)

      When Zola sent a synopsis for the ten novels of his projected Rougon-Macquart cycle to his publisher, Albert Lacroix, in 1869, he included a plan for one that would describe “the erethism of the intelligence,” “the modern sickness of the artist,” and “the unhealthy conceptions of brains that develop into insanity.” He was familiar with the work of Moreau de Tours from which he very probably borrowed this terminology, and the hereditary pathology that serves to link the various novels in the cycle has many echoes of the “morbid psychology” explored by Moreau in his book of that title. The...

  10. Part V: Precocity and Child Prodigies
    • CHAPTER 13 Exemplarity and Performance in Literature for Children
      (pp. 161-172)

      Youth and precocity have long since been written into the notion of genius. Although (Pseudo-) Aristotle’s exceptional men are adults with proven achievements, Plato endows Ion with an arrogance and a naivety that make it hard to imagine him being anything other than young. From the ancient world onward, artistic talent presupposed its early manifestation and in the written lives of the Greek poets their gifts were likely to be marked by distinctive “portents” in childhood. In their history of the image of the artist, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz also note the tendency of the “artist stories” of the...

    • CHAPTER 14 Alfred Binet and the Measurement of Intelligence
      (pp. 173-182)

      Children’s literature was not the only means whereby the figure of the child prodigy was constructed, and at the turn of the century the new discipline of experimental psychology had its own part to play. If the precocity of the child prodigy is to have any basis, it will be vastly helped by the existence of a reliable scale for measuring the achievements of an average child, against which exceptional ability can then be gauged. The assessment of the talents that astonish the admiring adults in the lives of famous children is an impressionistic affair, but in the twentieth century...

    • CHAPTER 15 Minou Drouet: The Prodigy under Suspicion
      (pp. 183-192)

      Between September and December 1955 France was gripped by the so-called Minou Drouet affair, Minou being a previously unknown eight-year-old child poet who captured public interest. The publisher René Julliard had distributed a selection of her letters and poems in the form of a little pamphlet sent to critics, writers, and friends “to put down a marker” and provide advance publicity for the first commercial edition of Minou’s poetry,Arbre, mon ami(Tree, my friend), which was scheduled to appear in January 1956, whereafter it sold forty-five thousand copies. In the meantime, and in the absence of any book publication,...

  11. Part VI: Genius in Theory
    • CHAPTER 16 Cultural Critique and the End of Genius: Barthes, Sartre
      (pp. 195-203)

      The child and the brain have remained the main focus of thinking—both positive and negative—about genius. IQ testing keeps children in the foreground, and a fifth edition of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale was introduced in 2003. The “gifted child,” or the Frenchenfant surdoué, is the object of various types of enquiry and concern in the West and beyond. There was a serious proposal in the early years of the Soviet Union to create institutions that would nurture budding geniuses while accommodating their “individualistic, unsociable tendencies and frequent ailments.” There was also a plan for an Institute of...

    • CHAPTER 17 The Return of Genius: Mad Poets
      (pp. 204-211)

      The issue of genius seems to frame the time of theory in France—roughly the second half of the century—and it rarely features in the middle years. The analyses of Barthes and Sartre might suggest that genius is inimical to theory, but it is also through theory that genius is rehabilitated as a viable object of thought. As we shall see, however, it makes this return in the company of psychotics, women, and impostors, as if to prove that it is the most unlikely companions who will endow it with the greatest conceptual energy. Each of these associations calls...

    • CHAPTER 18 Julia Kristeva and Female Genius
      (pp. 212-218)

      In the four decades that followed these portraits of Hölderlin, French theory showed little interest in the issue of genius. But at the very end of the century the notion makes a dramatic and unexpected return in female guise with Julia Kristeva’s three biographical studies of Hannah Arendt (1999), Melanie Klein (2000), and Colette (2002). Published under the collective titleLe Génie féminin, these biographies make no explicit connection with either Jouve or Blanchot, though three lines from Jouve’s translation of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets provide an epigraph for the Melanie Klein volume. Nor is Kristeva concerned with insanity and...

    • CHAPTER 19 Derrida, Cixous, and the Impostor
      (pp. 219-226)

      Genèses, généalogies, genres et le génie(Geneses, genealogies, genres and genius), one of Derrida’s last books, is the text of a lecture given in 2003 to mark the gift made by Hélène Cixous of her archive to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. One year after the publication of the third volume of Kristeva’sLe Génie féminin, genius and gender are once again associated in relation to an individual figure—in this case, the writer Hélène Cixous. As Derrida’s compound title indicates, genius is not the sole topic of his discussion, but the occasion is the pretext for a thoroughgoing reevaluation...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 227-250)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-266)
  14. Index
    (pp. 267-274)