Genius in France: An Idea and Its Uses

Genius in France: An Idea and Its Uses

by Ann Jefferson


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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 of philosophes such 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 France brings a fresh approach to French intellectual and cultural history, and to the burgeoning field of genius studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691160658
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/21/2014
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ann Jefferson is professor of French literature at the University of Oxford and fellow and tutor in French at New College, Oxford. Her books include Reading Realism in Stendhal and Biography and the Question of Literature in France.

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Genius in France

An Idea and Its Uses

By Ann Jefferson


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5259-8


The Eighteenth Century

Mimesis and Effect

[G]enius is the feeling that creates.

—D'Alembert, Discours préliminaire de l' Encyclopédie

The man who invents a mimetic genre is a man of genius.

The man who perfects a mimetic genre, or who excels in it is also a man of genius.

—Diderot, IMITATION, Gramm. & Philosoph., Encyclopédie

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. Diderot, the Enlightenment's most famous theorist of genius, contributed to both types of debate. For most of the eighteenth century genius referred to an attribute rather than to an individual, to "genius" in general rather than "a genius" in particular. Although it was possible to refer to l'homme de génie (the man of genius) and even to speak of him as un beau génie (a fine genius) or un grand génie (a great genius), the man as genius does not become common currency until the end of the century. Women rarely figure in these debates where the masculine third-person pronoun is the norm, and I shall return to this issue in part IV.

The century is characterized above all by a huge appetite for knowledge, and it is in this context that genius began to take its modern form. It became the object of new enquiry, but was also regarded as its privileged source. In the words of D'Alembert in the "Preliminary Discourse" to the Encyclopédie, genius "[opens] unknown routes, and [advances] onward to new discoveries." The products of genius benefit humanity in general, as humanity becomes the collective "Other" of genius to which it responds with admiration and grateful recognition. The Encyclopédie itself, whose twenty-eight volumes were published between 1751 and 1772, is the most visible manifestation of the new epistemological zeal, and its stated aim—still in D'Alembert's words—was to examine "the genealogy and the filiation of the parts of our knowledge, the causes that have brought the various branches of our knowledge into being, and the characteristics that distinguish them."

Genius had a vital role in this ambitious project. Knowledge for the Philosophes is democratized and is of two kinds. The first is "direct," entering the human mind through the senses "without resistance and without effort" on our part, and it finds "all the doors of our souls open." The second, "reflective" type of knowledge results from the mind's operations on this initial material. But although access to information about the world may be universal as a consequence of its spontaneous passage through the senses, history suggests that in reality, enlightenment has been spread by a "small number of great geniuses" and that it is they who have had the privileged part to play in making it available to the rest of humanity. Novelty was the watchword, and genius its guarantee.


"Invention" is the defining characteristic of such genius and is the principal means whereby it makes its enlightening discoveries. As defined by the Dictionnaire de l' Académie française of 1762, invention designates the capacity to "find something new through the power of the mind or the imagination," and its objects may include entities as extensive as an entire art, a science, a system, or a machine. In his Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines (1746) the philosopher Condillac specifically credits invention with the capacity of genius to bring new knowledge about the world to light: "It considers things from perspectives unique to it; it gives birth to a new science, or carves out a path through those that are already cultivated, leading to truths that no one thought could be reached." In his book De l' esprit (On mind, 1758), Helvétius also associates invention with the productive capacity of genius when he goes back to the etymological origins of the word—"gignere, gigno; I give birth, I produce"—in support of the claim that "[genius] always presupposes invention," and that invention is the attribute common to all types of genius. Condorcet, writing in 1794, adduces the same correlation between genius and invention when he describes invention as "the primary faculty of the human intelligence that has been given the name genius." Genius is portrayed in his euphoric account as the driving force behind progress in human knowledge, whether scientific or artistic, from the ancient Greeks to the present day.

Invention is repeatedly celebrated as proof of genius, even if there were differences of perspective when it came to the detail of its functioning. For some, it designated a capacity for the association of ideas, and Condillac argues that new ideas are a higher-order form of knowledge whereby "we combine, through a process of composition and decomposition, the ideas that we receive through the senses." This was also the view of Helvétius, who furthermore argued that such associations—and thus genius itself—were the product of chance circumstance, a thesis Diderot took issue with in his refutation of Helvétius's essay De l'homme (On man). In the entry for "Génie" in a supplement to his Dictionnaire philosophique (written in 1771), Voltaire acknowledges that "the term genius appears necessarily to designate talents that include invention, rather than great talents indiscriminately." Although he himself had reservations about this assumption and preferred perfection in a work of art to the invention of new forms, his comment acknowledges once more that the name the eighteenth century most frequently gives to the source of the superior knowledge supplied by genius is "invention."

Genius in general was viewed by many as an association of different qualities or attributes, albeit with invention as their dominant. For Condillac it is a combination of "good sense, intelligence, judgment, discernment, reason, conception, sagacity, depth, and taste," and he credits the combination with creative powers. The moraliste Vauvenargues suggests that it depends to a large extent on our "passions," but adds that "it is created by a combination of many different qualities," the precise nature of which varies according to the particular sphere in which genius is applied. Ultimately, however, whatever the particular amalgam of qualities that constitute genius, they are seen as the means whereby information may enter the doors of the soul and the world be imprinted upon the mind in ways not hitherto registered by others: "the first advantage of genius is to feel and conceive the objects it is concerned with more keenly than the same objects are felt and perceived by other men." Invention is the end product of an unusual receptivity that provides the mind with new knowledge about the world it inhabits.

This exceptional keenness of perception is understood chiefly in terms of the mental qualities that support it—observation and sensibility. Conceptions of the physiological basis of genius had evolved since earlier periods, though some of its legacy survives in glancing reference: Charles Bonnet ascribes the aptitude of genius for attention to "the strength of the fibers on which attention is deployed." Abbé Dubos suggests that genius is due to "a happy arrangement of the organs of the brain" as well as to the quality of the blood. Heat is recurrently associated with genius in accordance with the Aristotelian discussion of the humors, although it also carries an increasingly metaphorical charge, as for example, when Vauvenargues speaks of "that heat of genius and that love of its object, which allow it to imagine and invent around the object itself." More idiosyncratically, Diderot invokes the "diaphragm" as the bodily seat of genius; and, while acknowledging that it doubtless owes much to "a certain structure of the head and the intestines [and] a certain constitution of the humors," he concedes that a precise notion of these things is impossible to come by, and that it is mental attributes, such as the power of observation, that offer the greatest explanatory potential.

These physiological comments about the location and constitution of genius bear the trace of early modern discussions such as those of Ficino and Huarte, but in an Enlightenment context they serve above all to ground an understanding of genius in the terms of sensualist philosophy that makes the mind the seat of the knowledge that derives from the impressions that the world makes upon the senses. As the "Article Génie" in the Encyclopédie puts it,

Breadth of mind, strength of imagination and activity of the soul, these are genius. ... Most men experience keen sensations only through the impression made by objects that have a direct relation to their needs, their tastes, etc.... The man of genius is someone whose vaster soul is struck by sensations coming from all beings, is interested in everything found in nature, and does not receive an idea without it awaking a feeling; everything animates him, everything is stored within him.

Genius is an enhanced capacity to register the world as sensation, to respond to beings and objects in all their variety, and to serve as a respository for knowledge about the world that is beyond the reach of more limited mortals. It is this aptitude that also distinguishes genius in the realm of the arts where mimesis is the principal aesthetic criterion.

Mimesis and the Arts

D'Alembert places the fine arts and philosophy alongside each other as parallel examples of reflective knowledge. Both philosopher and artist are conceived in terms of their capacity to portray the world in which they find themselves, and to do so for the benefit of others in the form of insights about its real nature. The arts differ from other forms of knowledge in that they replicate this experience for their recipients through mimetic representation—or what D'Alembert calls "imitation": "This is what we call the imitation of Nature.... Since the direct ideas that strike us most vividly are those we remember most easily, these are also the ones that we try most to reawaken in ourselves by the imitation of their objects." It is in the plastic arts that "imitation best approximates the objects represented and speaks most directly to the senses," painting and sculpture being the most immediate forms of "the knowledge that consists of imitation." Poetry (the generic term for literature) comes next in the order of mimesis: it represents to the imagination—as opposed to the senses—"the objects that make up this universe" and does so "in a touching and vivid manner." Music is the least mimetic of the arts, but has the merit of being the medium that acts most directly on the senses. Works of art re-create the sensory being's experience of the world, and mimesis is conceived principally in terms of the effects it produces on its audience: "The mind creates and imagines objects only insofar as they are similar to those it knows already through direct ideas and sensations." And, whether in painting, poetry, or music, genius is the attribute that most successfully replicates knowledge of the world as an experience for its spectators, readers, and listeners.

Genius in eighteenth-century aesthetics is not primarily a capacity to create a beautiful work of art, as it could be said to have been for Boileau, or even for Perrault, whose epistle to Fontenelle on the subject of genius was a precursor to the discussions in the following century. Boileau's Art poétique (1674) treated genius as the essential requirement for successful application of the rules of art, while nevertheless warning the would-be poet against mistaking a simple "love of rhyming" for true genius. As his translation of Longinus, the Traité du sublime (Treatise on the sublime), maintained, "greatness of soul" is the indispensable requirement for good writing. Perrault, whose Epître dates from 1688 and was written in the heat of the Querelle des anciens et des modernes, presents genius as a form of inspiration that allows the poet to produce forms of language that will rouse the passions of his readers: "Heat must be spread through the soul / to raise it and move it to external action, / to provide it with a language which, whether willingly or by force finds approval in each listener, ... and which through the beauty of its expression, / kindles every passion within the heart." It speaks volumes that in the original French, Perrault rhymes passions with the beauty of expressions. For his eighteenth-century successors, by contrast, the work of art becomes a vehicle for mimesis, and genius consists in the ability to create a touching likeness. It is this likeness, rather than any stylistic beauty, that will ignite the passions of the eighteenth-century human heart.

Genius in its Enlightenment guise works according to what M. H. Abrams calls a poetics of the mirror, which gave way only later to a Romantic aesthetic of the lamp. The mirror was fundamental to the way in which genius was conceived, and the mimetic capacity ascribed to genius was viewed first and foremost in terms of its effect upon its reading or viewing "Other." It was no coincidence that the issue of the reader's perspective proved to be so integral to Kant's understanding of genius, though the "others" of imposture and madness will make a brief appearance before the century is out.

As in other branches of knowledge, the man of artistic genius is endowed with qualities that allow him either to penetrate the world through his observational powers, or else, on the basis of his sensibility, to take up its imprint and make it legible in turn to his readers and viewers. He sees things in the world that have not previously been seen, or realities that have hitherto been overlooked, and he creates a likeness that makes it possible for others to share his discoveries. It is a two-stage process whereby the relation between nature and the man of genius is replicated in the relation between the work and the reader-spectator, the difference being that where the man of genius is alone in what he discovers, his artistic representations are universally available to the many who constitute his public.

There are, to be sure, differences of emphasis and concern, but the twin linchpins of the discussion of genius across the century, from Dubos to Diderot, are mimesis and readerly effect. It is for this reason, no doubt, that the art forms most thoroughly explored in this context are the most overtly representational: painting and literature, especially in the forms of tragedy and the classical epic—though not the lowly form of the novel. Dubos's Réflexions critiques are devoted to "poetry" (i.e., to literature) and to painting; Batteux's analysis of "the fine arts" principally addresses the same fields, while making an occasional nod in the direction of music; and Diderot's discussion of genius either is so general as not to require reference to any particular art form, or else arises as part of his writing on painting (viz., the Salons), literature (the Éloge de Richardson would be a prime example, and incidentally constitutes an exception to the exclusion of the novel from the purview of genius), or else the theater (the Entretiens sur le Fils naturel [Conversations on "Le Fils naturel"] and Le Paradoxe sur le comédien [Paradox of acting]). Music, despite its importance in the eighteenth century, provides little pretext for extensive discussion of genius, except, briefly, in Rousseau's entry on genius in the Dictionnaire de musique (1768) and in Diderot's Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's nephew), which I shall be discussing in the next chapter.


Even where the nature depicted in the work of art is an idealized version of reality—la belle nature, for which Batteux makes a strong case—it still relies on the artist's powers of observation for its existence. When constructing the figure of the misanthropist in Le Misanthrope (a work much cited in the eighteenth century for its genius), Batteux argues that Molière did not set out to find a living example he could then copy. Instead, he based his portrait on his observation of "the features of black bile" in a variety of different figures that he synthesized into a composite character who provided more insight into misanthropy than could any more slavish depiction of particular individuals. He dismisses Platonic frenzy as the source of genius in favor of this capacity for attention to natural phenomena: "It is active reason, which is exercised with art upon an object, industriously seeks out all the real aspects of the object, all its possible aspects, methodically dissects its most delicate parts, and measures its most remote connections: it is an enlightened instrument, which explores thoroughly, digs deep and quietly penetrates. Its function consists, not in imagining what cannot exist, but in discovering what does exist." His defense of le vraisem blable against le vrai may carry with it the rider that imitation should not be literal, but Batteux still makes the principle of insightful observation central to the workings of genius.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

Introduction 1

Part I: Enlightenment Genius 17

Chapter 1: The Eighteenth Century: Mimesis and Effect 19

Chapter 2: Genius Obscured: Diderot 35

Part II: Nineteenth-Century

Genius: The Idiom of the Age 45

Chapter 3: Language, Religion, Nation 47

Chapter 4: Individual versus Collective Genius 61

Chapter 5: The Romantic Poet and the Brotherhood of Genius 67

Chapter 6: Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, and the Dynasty of Genius 81

Part III: Genius in the Clinic 89

Chapter 7: Genius under Observation: Lélut 91

Chapter 8: Genius, Neurosis, and Family Trees: Moreau de Tours 104

Chapter 9: Genius Restored to Health 114

Part IV: Failure, Femininity, and the Realist Novel 123

Chapter 10: A Novel of Female Genius: Mme de Staël's Corinne 125

Chapter 11: Balzac's Louis Lambert: Genius and the Feminine Mediator 137

Chapter 12: Creativity and Procreation in Zola's L'OEuvre 146

Part V: Precocity and Child Prodigies 159

Chapter 13: Exemplarity and Performance in Literature for Children 161

Chapter 14: Alfred Binet and the Measurement of Intelligence 173

Chapter 15: Minou Drouet: The Prodigy under Suspicion 183

Part VI: Genius in Theory 193

Chapter 16: Cultural Critique and the End of Genius: Barthes, Sartre 195

Chapter 17: The Return of Genius: Mad Poets 204

Chapter 18: Julia Kristeva and Female Genius 212

Chapter 19: Derrida, Cixous, and the Impostor 219

Notes 227

Bibliography 251

Index 267

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"In the mid-twentieth century the concept of 'genius' was often dismissed as a mystification, an invitation to adore what we couldn't understand. Yet, Ann Jefferson's rich and astute history of the uses of the term in France shows that, from the eighteenth century to the present day, much of what matters in our thinking about the mind, and about the arts and sciences, could not have been thought without it."—Michael Wood, Princeton University

"A marvelous topic brilliantly handled. Ann Jefferson's superb literary and cultural analysis makes a series of probes into the fascinating history of the idea of genius, carrying us, after a look back at antiquity, from Diderot and Mme de Staël to Cixous and Derrida. The sparkling account of child prodigies, fakes, and frauds is a tour de force. This is a book that will engross and delight readers with a wide range of interests."—Michael Sheringham, All Souls College, University of Oxford

"Is genius a sign of divine inspiration or clinical madness? Does it attract admirers, or doom its possessor to solitude? Can a woman, or a child, be a genius? In Ann Jefferson's immensely learned tour of three hundred years of French cultural debates, writers and philosophers rub shoulders with doctors, journalists, and child prodigies. Jefferson's wide-ranging and engagingly written study of genius in France is a tremendous achievement."—Toril Moi, Duke University

"Ann Jefferson's magnificent work on the notion of genius examines a vast array of French artistic, philosophical, and medical debates, showing how genius was linked to perfection and fraudulence, national glory and exclusion, and the highest mental powers and degeneracy. Written in a marvelously accessible style, this book represents a decisive, lasting contribution to the history of French intellectual and literary life."—Thomas G. Pavel, University of Chicago

"This book follows how the French viewed the idea of genius, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Jefferson's work is erudite and clear, challenging and persistent."—David Bellos, author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything

"This thoughtful and engaging book combines rigorous literary and intellectual history with linguistic sensitivity to track cultural understandings of genius from the eighteenth century to the present in French thought and writing. Genius in France will change how this idea is conceptualized and discussed."—Miranda Gill, University of Cambridge

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