Jean Starobinski sees the eighteenth century as the stage upon which an unprecedented freedom movement lit up and exploded in a tragic flash. This was the moment when Diderot made of the genius a personal, secret, and indefinable kind of soul, in the absence of which nothing beautiful or very great could be accomplished. The genius would be an exceptional calculator who attracts notice in things great and small. He is a sort of prophetic spirit.
The genealogy of creative genius has been quite rich since ancient times. For the Greeks, the daimon, a “personal god,” watched over men, places, and things, uniting the human with the divine. In the modern world, where God is absent, it is the individual creator who can take His place. One need only read and listen to some discourses on contemporary art to grasp how a Romantic conception of this exceptional being with superhuman powers, whose mission is modeled on a religious one, continues into the present.
We have asked the sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger to review the different types of explanation that make it possible to apply the notion of genius to artists. Using the case of Beethoven, he offers us an answer to the antinomies found in the human sciences. Bruno Moysan, a musician and musicologist, responds to him with a reflection on the virtuosic brilliance of Liszt in nineteenth-century society on its path of democratization. There, the artistic genius maintains equal distance from a rejection of the logic of democratic egalitarianism and from the essentialism of aristocracy and absolutism.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Seminar of May 15th 2008
Construction of the Experience of Lack and of Debt?
The question of genius, talent, and reputation embarrasses, even exasperates, modern societies inasmuch as the very idea of a work of art or of an exceptional person goes against democratic societies’ tendency toward egalitarianism and relativism. There would be no instances of greatness, just artefacts a collectivity at a given moment and in a given place would designate as such. No one will be fooled by how rather facile this New Look nominalism ultimately can be, even if subjecting our categories and our convictions to the razor of deconstruction offers a refreshingly salutary reconsideration of our convictions, our traditions, and our illusions. It will easily be granted that Bach’s greatness is a sociohistorical construction. And yet one need only have suffered just a little while composing a fugual opening to understand through experience what separates a student’s fugato from Bach’s Art of the Fugue. The incredible pyrotechnics of the Romantic virtuosi or the complex combinations of certain fifteenth-century contrapuntal works have led to the construction of hierarchies, given rise to rankings, and created scales of worth, even though those hierarchies, rankings, and scales do tend–and here lies the entire problem–to become elusive once one tries to establish them. Would there be genius as there is time for Saint Augustine? The thing moves away from us as we attempt to approach it. By a sort of reasoned argumentation, or rather a circular empirical observation, performance becomes its own proof, whereas once we exit from this empirical circularity we are condemned to revolve in a circularity of greatness that exists only in the gaze of those who look upon it.
1 – Vision, Lack, and Debt
Contemporary sociological theories that broach the question of genius, talent, and reputation may be divided schematically (as Pierre-Michel Menger has developed this in a text the present one echoes, and which I am but summarizing) into three tendencies: those that make of Genius a monument (that is to say, the visionary embodiment of a collectivity, of an era, or even of Humanity), an exceptional entrepreneur (that is to say, someone who has been able to mobilize, better than others, the resources at his disposal), and, finally, an heir (in other terms, he who has been the beneficiary of exceptionally favorable conditions, from which he has been able to “optimize). These three tendencies bring to light an experiential base that perhaps constitutes the very essence of Genius, namely, vision, lack, and debt. If one postulates that art is a particular form of embodiment of human activity (Luigi Pareyson) and that, like the latter, it connects a goal, various means, a material, a search for the best possible result, and a vision–an imagination–it is likely that the experience underlying these ranking operations that invent genius, talent, and reputation is suffering or irritation at the experience of our own . . . inexperience, of our finitude. We undoubtedly find ourselves here at the heart of this relationship between mind and hand, where, by dint of trials and errors and through deliberate adjustments, the dynamic relationship between vision and the action of transforming some material (Alain Ehrenzweig, Robert Klein) create the work at the same time that this relationship between mind and hand gives rise to a lack, an absence, a shortfall, a shortage. The desire for plenitude and completion reveals our poverty. Of course, the mechanisms that transform this awareness of lack into a socialized scale of worth are complex. A set of social mediations (institutions, experts, practices, norms, and rules) enters into play. That said, while the variability of norms and rules serves to indicate the relativity of people’s differences and of the interpretation societies make of those differences, does this variability itself succeed in cancelling out, for all that, the production of these same differences? Liszt composed virtuoso works of incredible difficulty because he wanted to be the top composer and to be considered as such by the society of his time, and no doubt by posterity as well. Some of these compositions, like the 1838 Studies of Transcendental Execution after Paganini, remain unplayable today at the tempo Liszt demanded. And whether one situates oneself inside or outside the frame of reference that was in effect at the time of their composition and initial reception, their exceptionableness still holds. Liszt was able to play better than others and saw and heard better what could be done with ten fingers on a piano keyboard.
The displacement, on the scale of before and after, of this experience of the difficulty of playing with which I myself am confronted in the form of lack creates a second relation that externalizes my relation to action in the form of a relation of secondariness (Rémi Brague) with respect to the Other. We must surely insist on this relation of secondariness. For, it is perhaps the other confrontation that founds genius, the one that, along with the subject’s relation to the object or to the task to be accomplished, associates lack with a debt that connects me to he from whom I am the recipient, gives me duties toward him–at the least, a duty of recognition–and transforms this awareness of lack into an anteriority that is productive of Historicity (Paul Ricoeur). Would not the Elder, he who is Before–for example, in the parent-child relationship–be the one who externalizes our confrontation between subject and object or between subject and work-to-be-accomplished, which is already a tiny History in itself, into a confrontation between Self and the Other-who-has-an-advance-lead over me and has made a gift to me? This sort of historicity is peculiar to educational or apprenticeship relations. The relation of secondariness takes the form of a double relationship marked by temporality, and inequality, between the Elder, the Father, the Mother, or the Teacher and the recipient. Here again, of course, a set of evaluative authorities, experts, and canons serve to mediate judgment, but just as the difficulties involved in starting up came to foreground the experience of lack and not the scales or the name of lack, so the confrontation with the Elder, which is peculiar to the relation of secondariness, foregrounds the experience of the “advance lead” and its relationship to lack, more than the name that will be given to this lack or the always variable scale that will be manufactured in order to evaluate how far in advance this lead might be. However the thing is taken, the Elder will always put me in the position of being the younger person who, quite simply because he has built up some courses of action before me, has something to teach me.
2 – Historical Digressions
Lerhaps the most astonishing thing, on the other hand, is the way in which our society has invented genius on the basis of an experience of lack in the process of action (enterprise) and of debt in the relation of secondariness with respect to the Other (inheritance). Music theorists of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance have handed down to us portrait galleries that construct a scale of worth which associates the highest technical proficiency with a phantasm of perfect mastery, all of this leading to a pantheonization of great elders. Heinrich Glarean, Johannes Tinctoris, Adrien Petitcoclico, and Ludovico Guicciardini, who do not all belong to the same generation, offer a gallery of Franco-Flemish ars perfecta composers from which first Johannes Ockeghem and then Josquin des Prez emerge before Vincenzo Galilei removed them from this pantheon at the end of the sixteenth century in order to promote more effectively the seconda prattica. What is striking in this pantheonization of the Franco-Flemish ars perfecta is the implicit glorification of technical mastery, scientia musicae, which is associated with a form of perfection that was built up as it was seen and as it was composed. Aside from technical mastery, whose counterpoint is the discrediting of the unskilled musician, one should be careful not to underestimate everything that has to do with imaginative vision as intuition-achievement of perfection–whether successful or not, moreover, and this, whatever the image society has of perfection as vision, as imagination, or as making the best possible choices. In some wonderful pages, Robert Klein has shown how much theoretical debates on the imagination in the Renaissance were indissociable from choices of a technical nature and from people’s representations. We shall not enter into detail here about the aesthetic and technical criteria that were in effect for the construction of the norm, save to note that, even if genius in the modern sense of the term is not apparent in the reflections of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century music theorists, all the criteria of exceptionableness are to be found there (uncommon playing mastery, correct views, and fabrication of the figure of the Elder–who is to be imitated but who is also inimitable–not to forget a reference to origins via the figures of Saint Gregory, Saint Ambrose, or Saint Augustine).
It is uncertain whether, in the end, Romanticism succeeded in thoroughly altering what the Renaissance had invented without truly giving it a name. It is likely, though, that the combined processes of secularization and democratization made exceptional productions of the human spirit, and of the person who produced them, into a manifestation of the greatness of Humanity, now detached from its relationship with God and tending toward self-immanence. Romantic genius can be analyzed as an at once constructivist and democratic way of excelling socially, or rather as one that testifies to a set of compromises peculiar to nineteenth-century society on its path of democratization. As its etymology indicates, genius is not easily conceivable without a symbolic production that can verge on being a tour de force, a testing of limits, a striving for the impossible–with, paradoxically, an extreme productivist rationalization of the tools associated with this desire to spiritualize matter. In this sense, genius continues the humanist project of the Renaissance, but it does so by deflecting it toward a religion of art thought more fitting for the individualism of the nineteenth century than a religion whose norms come from an established Church. At the same time, this individual productivism offers a way of excelling socially and a form of distinction that are no longer dependent upon one’s lineage, one’s proximity to the prince, a noble background dating from times immemorial, or war. It does not precede the individual and it dies with him. The cult of the individual performance existed before the time of Romanticism–we have just outlined its contours–but it existed in a society that offered as model the saint, who is judged ultimately not by men but by God alone, or the hero, whose works and performances do not belong, however, to the field of works of the mind [oeuvres de l’esprit]. Genius proposes a more secular and more bourgeois model for excelling on the social level, one that claims at the same time to be spiritual, but without reference to any particular established Church, and that is based on works that are subject to evaluation even though these very works can lay a claim to be transcending the limits of all evaluation. Being elitist, Romantic genius rejects, though the sacralization of individual merit, the egalitarian logic of individualistic and productivist democracy; it rejects the lineage-based and as-if timeless essentialism of aristocracy and absolutism. In nineteenth-century society on its path of democratization, which sacralized, through genius, the productions of the exceptional individual who owes everything only to himself, a secret collusion (whose character we cannot develop here) undoubtedly also unites the Romantic artist with the banker or the captain [chevalier] of industry. Are not all three Producers of goods that are signs and of signs that are goods? Marx had understood this perfectly well.
Beyond all forms of questioning about evaluations and the production of values or about the variability of such evaluations and productions, it is likely that the question of genius also and perhaps especially questions our relation to things (Bruno Latour) and to bodies, without neglecting the possibility of something that goes beyond things and bodies. To compose in the sixteenth century is also to compose for embodied voices and to set a tactus, a measure of time, with a body (in this instance, the pulse–whence, later on, pulsation); to be a virtuoso in the nineteenth century is to compose hand movements on keyboards or on the necks of string instruments, to hear them and to play them. To recount the history of genius–which, moreover, remains to be done–is perhaps to recount the history of the compositions of this awareness of lack that is correlative to our experience of things. It is also to recount the history of visions and inventions within this lack, without neglecting the history of instances of secondariness and of debts that come to weave with humanity this recounting.
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Certeau, Michel de. The Mystic Fable. Trans. Michael B. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Ehrenzweig, Alain. L’ordre caché de l’art. Paris: Gallimard-Tel, 1974.
Klein, Robert. Form and Meaning: Essays on the Renaissance and Modern Art (1970). Trans. Madeline Jay and Leon Wieseltier. Foreword Henri Zerner. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern (1991). Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Menger, Pierre-Michel. “Le génie et sa sociologie, controverses interprétatives sur le cas Beethoven.” Annales: Histoire, Sciences sociales, 4 (2002): 967-99.
Ponnau, Dominique. La beauté pour sacerdoce. Paris: Presse de la Renaissance, 2004.
Pareyson, Luigi. Conversations sur l’esthétique. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.
Ricoeur, Paul. Memory, History, Forgetting (2000). Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Bruno Moysan a holder of a French teaching certificate who has a doctorate in musicology, is the author of Liszt (Paris: Gisserot, 1999; winner of the year 2000 prize of the Sciences Po Association of Professors and Associate Professors) and of Liszt, virtuose subversif (Lyon: Symétries, 2008), as well as the coauthor of Religion et Culture (Neuilly: Atlande, 2002). A music teacher at the Marceau High School in Chartres, he has been a lecturing professor on “Music and Politics” at Sciences Po since 1998 and at Paris’s Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse since 2007. He has taught at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin in Yvelines, where he is an associate researcher at the Center for the Cultural History of Contemporary Societies. Moysan is presently working on the relationship between art, politics, subjectivity, and liberalism.