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Ann Jefferson. Genius in France: An Idea and Its Uses.

Ann Jefferson. Genius in France: An Idea and Its Uses. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015. Pp. 288.

Few words are as illicit, in literary scholarship of the last several decades at least, as genius; its very presence dates a piece of writing as surely as carbon-14 dates an archaeological specimen. Our avoidance of the word stems partly from a professional discomfort with evaluation, but also from our implicit understanding of the word's extreme lability, something Ann Jefferson's illuminating study of the concept over the past three centuries makes abundantly clear. As Jefferson sketches it in the book's opening pages, genius can refer to either an extreme observational acuity or an originality that dispenses with the need to observe outer reality; a self-evident attribute that transcends mere opinion or a quality doomed to be misrecognized and misunderstood; a capacity to embody a vast collective, such as a nation or a language, or an irreducible individuality that obeys no borders; a summary of its moment or a transcendence of history. It might be best known by a catalog of its others, like mere talent, or intellect, or beauty, kinds of competency that genius soars over. Even syntactically it is evasive, both a general attribute ("le genie de la liberte") and a specific person who incarnates it.

Jefferson's daunting task is to give us a map to this territory, both historically and schematically, and in the process to subtly rehabilitate genius as a concept that she, using Claude Levi-Strauss's phrase, finds "good to think with" (6)--not an object of knowledge but a way of surveying cultural territory. One risk here is that such an imprecise concept might reveal nothing other than a chronicle of its shifting uses; another is that genius is too transnational an idea to be usefully studied through a single national or linguistic tradition. Jefferson manages the difficult feat of avoiding both pitfalls. On the latter dilemma, she argues counterintuitively that the French tradition, without as clear a record of philosophical reflection on genius as either England or Germany, and without a single national avatar of artistic genius (such as Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Goethe), was as a result more sensitive to cultural shifts in its use, less bound to a tradition or a consensus. The former problem she solves by a largely satisfying taxonomy of four cultural zones where "genius" was elaborated and contested, from Denis Diderot to Jacques Derrida: the poet; the mental theorist or clinical psychologist; the woman; the child prodigy. Each zone represents a stage in the French cultural history of the term, but the resonances activated in each zone do not die out entirely, instead remaining available for unpredictable reuse and repurposing decades, even centuries, later. And each site has its own particular discourse or genre: Romantic poetry and criticism; psychological treatises; the realist novel; children's literature and the cultural criticism that addressed it. The book is an argument for the fecundity of the term genius in French culture, enabled by the term's lack of what Jefferson called "focused philosophical discussion" (49).

In each stage Jefferson uncovers a particular dynamic instability to the use of genius, a kind of momentary, signature crisis of understanding. In its earliest formation, studied here through (among others) Chateaubriand, Mme de Stael, Edouard Alletz, Alfred de Vigny, and Victor Hugo, the figure of the poetic genius opened up the question of how a genius might express the inmost being or ingenium of a collective while remaining alien to, or unassimilable with, that collective; genius is the term used to describe how the artist gives back to a collective an image of itself that it cannot recognize. Although Jefferson does not pursue the insight, genius here seems to be an incipient reflection on mass culture and the mass audience. When she turns to clinical discussions of genius in the long transition from Romantic physiology to late-nineteenth-century heredity, we see imagination insisted on (in figures like Louis-Francisque Lelut or Philippe Pinel) as both the nourishing taproot of genius and its pathological sickness, leaving genius associated with madmen rather than the analytic intellects of science. Here again, genius is registering a tectonic shift in cultural authority, from the linguistic or conceptual to the empirical.

So far, so credible: the virtue of these early sections is in their deft and convincing way of constellating different voices, even if the lesson that emerges is not necessarily surprising or of particular urgency to scholars who would not already find themselves interested in the issue of genius and its cultural zones. It is with the book's latter sections that surprises begin, in particular with Jefferson's look at the figure of genius in realist fiction, with special attention to de Stael's Corinne, Honore de Balzac's Louis Lambert, and Emile Zola's L'OEuvre. The very category itself is a bit of a surprise: genius is a concept less at home in discourse around the novel than perhaps any other literary genre. There are musical and poetic prodigies, like Mozart or Keats; visual art has its legends of stunning, seemingly inborn and effortless talent evident from youth, from Ingres to Picasso; but the novel seems far more resistant to the narrative of genius--we do not speak of a "novelistic prodigy." The novel's association with mimesis in particular, which as Jefferson shows had a complicated and often oppositional place in the rhetoric of genius back to the eighteenth century, seems to rule out novelistic genius in favor of other cliches, like the professional wordsmith, the Flaubertian laborer at the endless craft of sentence making, the sage, the spinster, the journalist. Extreme precocity has never been a novelistic virtue.

What Jefferson shows instead is the way in which nineteenth-century realist fiction investigates genius in the process of its failure, as signs of a twofold approach to the category, "sympathetic identification and quasi-scientific scrutiny" (145). Usually showing male figures of genius derailed by the female figures of benefaction that genius both needs and cannot cope with, the realist novel sidles uneasily up to genius in order to detach itself from it more firmly, to siphon its energies without capitulating to its ideologies. If the novel is an orphaned form--orphaned, that is, from the lineage of genius that derives from the Latin gignere and the Greek gignestbai, to beget, to procreate--Jefferson locates in it an ambivalence both nostalgic for and critical of the lineage it cannot quite belong to. This is a remarkable insight, one that seems true in a large, formal sense--true about the form as a whole--as well as true in a narrower, historical sense, true of a particular moment in the evolution of the form.

If there is a loose thread to this particular argument, it is perhaps Jefferson's relative neglect of the possibility of a scientific kind of genius, for Balzac in particular; one thinks of Horace Bianchon, or his teacher Desplein, both described as being avatars of Genie, which often in Balzac seems far less specifically an aesthetic matter than Jefferson's treatment suggests. Perhaps this curious realm of intellectual genius, the world of Cuvier rather than Tasso, is where the realist novel can most easily imagine itself. But Jefferson's reading of realist fiction as engaged in what we might think of as a Kleinian aggression against genius might be compatible with its broadening of the notion of genius past just the aesthetic: to render genius nonaesthetic is, perhaps, much the same thing as killing it off.

Whatever conceptual murder the realist novel may have been up to, genius had a habit of resurrecting itself continually, as the final chapter of Jefferson's book shows. An engaging chapter on the Minou Drouet affair, in which genius is shown up as a bourgeois mythology (in Roland Barthes) or essentially an imposture (as in Jean-Paul Sartre), leads to a surprising coda, in which poststructuralist thinkers like Julia Kristeva and Derrida find themselves entranced by the very undecidability between authenticity and pose, or dancer and dance, that genius had come to signify at this point in its long history. Every attempt to move past genius, it turns out, leads to its revivification; that is one lesson of Jefferson's masterful survey. As a result, genius turns out to have much more of a purchase on our contemporary ideas of literary history--what it is and what it should be--than one might have suspected. (NICHOLAS DAMES, Columbia University)
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Author:Dames, Nicholas
Publication:The Romanic Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2014
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