- Making Way for Genius. The Aspiring Self in France from the Old Regime to the New by Kathleen Kete
In Making Way for Genius, Kathleen Kete examines the effects of the passage from an old regime estate society to a modern class society on conceptions of the self in [End Page 339] post-revolutionary France. In Chapter 1, "The Aspiring Self in France from the Old Regime to the New," she builds on previous scholarship in that area, and in particular the works of William H. Reddy (The Navigation of Feeling, The Invisible Code) and Jan Goldstein (The Post-Revolutionary Self), to articulate the issue on which her book centers: the tension between the "free play of competition" in an era of individual liberties, and the moral anxieties raised by ambition, viewed as "the trait of a 'depraved soul'" (3) in Old Regime France. The problem, she argues, became particularly acute after the fall of the Jacobin republic which had tried and failed to turn ambition into a public virtue. During the Directory and the Napoleonic era "modern French law took self-interest—the lowest denominator of the general will—as its guiding principle" (18) and elevated the "pursuit of 'enlightened self-interest' to a moral good liberating men and women from 'providential design'" (15). Uneasiness towards ambition led the five key figures of the period on which her book focuses to overcome "the charge of selfishness, the feeling of oneness with a derelict capitalist society, the disapprobation of one's peers directed towards women" by embracing it indirectly, "through a kind of subterfuge" (19).
In Chapter II, Kete argues that "genius" appealed to Germaine de Staël and her heroine Corinne as a means not only of overcoming social restrictions imposed on women and achieving success, but also of counterbalancing self-interest through enthusiasm. Construed as "selfless" (40) and "ethically distinct from ambition" (41), genius allowed Staël "to think through the problem of the self, to ponder the ethics of self-assertion" (47) and also to create in Coppet, "the 'social space' for genius that eluded Corinne and contained égoïsme and ambition" (69). Chapter III centers on "the folly of ambition" (100): both Julien Sorel and Stendhal recognize that "what gives [their] lives meaning is the arrest of that drive to succeed" (93), but unlike Julien who is left with "no place to go" (89), Stendhal is able to "escape the impasse of his alter-ego" (90) following the discovery, at age eleven, of "his vocation, of his calling" (100). Chapter IV deals with Cuvier, "the fabled scientist" (107) who, faced with the "very reasonable charge of his ambition" (114), erased it from his biography: in a life story modeled on the fairy tale, "passivity" and "destiny" appear as the engine of his prodigious social ascension. Kete also reads Cuvier's Éloges historiques ("short biographies of deceased members of the Academy of Science") as his solution to "the great problem of the post-revolutionary self—mentally disconnected from its past, yet undeniably knit from it" (126): the good self is a "social self, tied to the orbit of Parisian sociability, [. . .] to organized life"; the bad one, "the solipsistic self, forever lost in imagination" (127), embodied, from Cuvier's vantage point, by his former friend Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire—the topic of the (very moving) chapter 5 on friendship. Kete summarizes her findings in a concluding chapter, "Ambition in post-revolutionary lives."
Although Making Way for Genius is an informative, engaging, well-written and well-researched book, some claims appear questionable to this reader. In chapter II, [End Page 340] the portrait of Staël as an advocate of equality (43-36) contradicts Staël's unequivocal stand against equality in Des Circonstances actuelles and De la littérature; and the dichotomy of Staël's own making that opposes Napoleon's "ethics of self-interest" to her own "spiritualist theory of selflessness" (61) would have deserved more critical...