Academic journal article Journal of Social History

'Genius' and the Household Mode of Intellectual Production: 1795-1885

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

'Genius' and the Household Mode of Intellectual Production: 1795-1885

Article excerpt

  In our age & country, every person with any mental power at all, who
  both thinks for himself & has a conscience, must feel himself, to a
  very great degree, alone.... I am in this supremely happy, that I have
  had & even now have, that communion in the fullest degree where it is
  most valuable of all, in my own home. But I have it nowhere else.
  J.S. Mill (1)

On the face of it, genius seems irreducible to sociological dissection. Yet 'genius,' as a cultural practice, is very much the product of a particular time and place. It was sometime around the period of the French Revolution that modern genius began to appear--not as an occasional gift of God, or freak of nature--but as a cohort of talented, ambitious young people, frequently from middle or lower-middle-class background, who were determined (even more profoundly than the political revolutionaries) to break the mold. (2) Regarding themselves as specially insightful and prophetic, they pioneered a new style of ultra-criticism that rejected existing society, not in the name of asceticism, but in the hopes of remaking the entire world aright.

My concern in this paper is with the second generation of modern geniuses, born after the Revolution, during the period 1795 to 1815, and reaching their prime during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Unlike the original 'romantic' geniuses of the revolutionary period, who tended to identify as artist-individualists, revolting against the corruption of the old aristocratic society and the philistinism of the new bourgeois order alike, this second generation had a somewhat more complicated challenge to surmount. (3) On one level, the Revolution had indisputably failed. And yet the conflicts and contradictions of the post 1815 Restoration era made it clear that there could be no simple return to the Ancien Regime. Romantic excess had led to the horrors of Robespierre and Napoleon, yet eighteenth-century rationalism seemed pallid and inadequate in their aftermath. Meanwhile, in Britain at least, a new urban industrial capitalist society was rapidly advancing, obliterating the traditional world of the past far more inexorably than mere political revolution had done. Creating poverty in the midst of wealth, and anarchy in the midst of order, its social and economic contradictions seemed even more perplexing and novel than those already experienced in the realms of ideas and politics. Under these circumstances, the challenge that my subjects set for themselves was that of creating a new synthesis: They would resolve the deepest, most intractable contradictions between revolution and reaction, faith and reason, romance and rationality, wealth and poverty, anarchy and order, tradition and progress--which earlier generations had accepted as inescapable discordancies.

But how was this reconciliation of antinomies to be achieved? The ante on genius had been raised for this cohort. It would require not just literary or political transformation, but a simultaneous metamorphosis of politics, society, and mentality. Yet all that a lone parvenu genius could do was to write, agitate, and try to convince the world to follow his/her lead. Even this, however, had become problematic. The old aristocratic patronage networks through which such an aspirant could enter the Republic of Letters were fast disappearing. The female-run salons in which a young upstart might make his mark were also fading away. At the same time, the institutions which have supported intellectuals in the twentieth century--universities, think-tanks, and professional associations, were only just beginning to open up. To promote one's work, for most of the nineteenth century, meant writing for the literary marketplace. That marketplace was, indeed, rapidly expanding, but the increasingly middle class and feminine audience seemed to want primarily improving manuals or escapist literature--not challenging treatises that diagnosed everything wrong with society and that offered complex analyses of how it might be repaired. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.