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Sunday, 17 December 2017

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

This is a very readable scholarly study, which is more than can be said for some of the works scholared and quoted here. It was only late in the book that I came across books quoted which I thought I might want to read in full. True, I started with a prejudice that the word genius is one of those empty signifiers which gets filled with ever-changing but always vague content and which one should therefore avoid. But Ann Jefferson shows how the term has been filled up in French discourses spanning three centuries and how the content has not been as woolly as I had imagined, but at least passably sophisticated. Nonetheless, it is fairly clear that for most of the time the term circulates in the context of attempts to establish and confirm status and worth, including financial worth. When it comes down to it, the genius of a person or a work is ascribed and confirmed very quickly because authors do not wish to miss a royalty, painters a sale, or critics a chance to burnish their reputations.

In the sciences, the pressure is different: you have to get to the solution before someone else does. You might end up proving Fermat’s last theorem fifty years after someone else has done so, and quite independently, but it doesn’t quite cut it as a stroke of genius. 

Likewise, a misunderstood or neglected artistic genius is not quite in the same league as someone who was acclaimed in their own lifetime. Clearly, if you had to wait until after your death, you were deficient in the kinds of marketing skills which Ann Jefferson has occasion to remark upon. Among French geniuses, Victor Hugo seems to have had the clear lead in self-marketing. Jefferson does not re-tell the old story that on the day of Hugo’s funeral you could not find a prostitute anywhere in Paris. That story is clearly somewhere in Parisian memory because when I attended Lacan’s public lectures in 1971 – 72, someone sitting next to me pointed to the front row and told me that the beautiful women there were all paid to attend. So for the next lecture, I joined in the spirit of the thing and wore a boutonnière. One should pay homage to genius, especially when it is hand in glove with charlatanism - a side theme which Jefferson interestingly explores.

But this haste to garland genius is in tension with what is supposed to be an aspect of genius, that the person or work of genius takes us somewhere we have not been before – that is the originality - and it may be quite hard for us to understand where we are being taken or why. The critics may be as baffled as the lay person. Would it not be more likely that we should have to wait for recognition of genius rather than have it announced (as seems quite often the case) even before the show has begun?
Nowadays, for example, a novel is published with the verdict already inscribed on the dust-jacket in half a dozen puffs by the great and  good of literature. What critic would dare dissent?

Genius circulates in a semantic space which includes or has included concepts of creativity, originality, imagination, idiots savants, prodigies, charlatans, madness, intelligence, and Jefferson encounters these as she progresses through her three centuries of French thought. I found her sympathetic chapter on Julia Kristeva one of the most interesting in the book, along with that on Sartre and Barthes, but it does seem to me that Kristeva, at least on Jefferson’s account, is expanding the concept of genius in such a way that it either transforms into or conflates it with singularity which is not so much a mark of originality as a mark of authenticity. If you can find your own genius, you at the same time find how to be authentic, to be you in your own way. That can be an everyday achievement to which all of us can aspire and its pre-requisite is not so much intelligence as  confidence.

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