The Wind that Plays the Harp: George Sand on Genius

by Isabelle Naginski, Professor of French and Codirector, International Literary and Visual Studies Program, Tufts University

George Sand’s entrance into literature in the early 1830s was steeped in self-doubt and melancholia. Her pronouncements on poetic inspiration were full of angst. In an early journal, Sketches and Hints (1830–34), using a violent and bloody image, she looked inwardly in search of the mystery of her future self: “I dug deep down into my entrails to find the secret of my destiny,” she writes.[1] She then conceded that her genius would bring with it a life of solitude, suffering, and public misunderstanding.

Early texts such as Letters of a Traveller and the novel Lélia depict genius as a curse and at the same time as a source of anxiety regarding the author’s literary worth. She creates, she claims despairingly, “with crude instruments such as the hoe and the trowel works which are roughly hewn, lacking in form, and always composed in moments of feverishness.”[2] Yet she knows in her heart of hearts that she is a woman of genius, following in the footsteps of her great literary foremother, Germaine de Staël.

The association that the young novelist establishes between genius, intellectual superiority, and melancholy comes directly from Aristotle. In his writings, he spoke of the “Saturnine temperament” of superior artists and great men.[3] This vision of genius has dominated Western thought and was exploited with particular intensity in the 19th century among French intellectual circles. Chateaubriand’s Romantic hero, René, who suffers from his own paralyzing superior intellect (later to be called “le mal du siècle”), Baudelaire’s “spleen,” and the group of poets, such as Verlaine and Rimbaud, who considered themselves to be superior but cursed (“poètes maudits”) are a few avatars of this pessimistic view of genius.

Unexpectedly, Sand seems to have changed the Aristotelian paradigm in 1837, at least for herself, when she composed a novel entitled The Master Mosaic Workers. In it she portrays two brothers, one who is a stereotypical melancholic artist, the other, Valerio, who embodies a new type. The latter’s carefree and cheerful behavior are signs that he is confident in his talent and does not need to mull things over in a somber way. Although less assiduous in his work, Valerio believes in his good fortune. He is more prolific when it comes to innovative ideas or sublime compositions.[4] Through this innovative artistic type Sand presented a radically new conception of genius. “Ambition is a sickness of the soul,” the mosaic worker explains. “All light comes from a divine place.”[5] Henceforth, this is the model that would guide Sand in her long writing career. Never again would her correspondence or her autobiographical or fictional texts expound the idea of literary production accomplished only through excruciating suffering.

Sand’s new vision of genius is Platonic in nature, since Plato was convinced that genius was a gift bestowed by the gods. In 1836 and 1837, when Sand was composing her novel, she was also avidly reading Plato in Victor Cousin’s French translation. The dialogue “Ion” is particularly crucial in this context: “Poets owe everything to inspiration.… They are the organs of god who speaks through their mouths.” As a result of her encounter with the philosophical and aesthetical theories of Plato, Sand’s attitude toward her capacity to write genially was transformed. She rejected the idea of a pessimistic Romanticism based on melancholic and solitary toil and replaced it with an optimistic Romanticism grounded in joy and solidarity. In other words, from an Aristotelian, Sand became a Platonist.

Years later, in her masterful correspondence with Flaubert, which spanned 14 years, Sand proposed various metaphors for the poetic inspiration that descended upon her. The author of Madame Bovary was an archetypical Saturnine artist who wrote painfully, slowly, and with great torment. As she attempted to present her friend with another vision of composition, Sand wrote: “The wind plays my old harp as it pleases. It has its upbeats and its low points, its strong notes and its weaknesses. In truth, it is all the same to me, as long as emotion comes, but I can find nothing in my inner being. It is the other who sings at will, either with success or with failure.” This “other” is her way of naming the Platonic muse. Sand had by now become a full-fledged Platonist. She scolded her friend for not understanding that the artist could act according to a different model from the one that was his. But Flaubert would have none of it, and he continued to write in suffering and frustration.

In History of My Life, the remarkable autobiography that Sand penned in the early 1850s, her treatment of Chopin’s genius is relevant to this discussion. First of all, she ranks Chopin as the greatest composer, surpassed only by Mozart.[8] Secondly, she uses both paradigms of genius to explain his working habits:

            His creativity was spontaneous, miraculous; he found it without seeking it.…But then would begin the worst heartbreaking labor I have ever witnessed. It was a series of efforts, indecision, and impatience to recapture certain details of the theme he had heard: … he now over-analyzed in his desire to transcribe it.… He would shut himself up in his room for days at a time, weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, changing a single measure a hundred times.[9]

In this detailed account of how Chopin composed his musical works, we find the Saturnine obsession very much alive in the composer’s mind. But the fact that “he would spend six weeks on a page, only to end up writing it just as he had done in his first outpouring” demonstrates that he was fundamentally a Platonist composer who believed himself to be an Aristotelian one. His “spontaneous” creativity was in the end allowed to take precedence after six weeks of painful and useless rewriting.

Thus is confirmed Sand’s conviction that artistic inspiration comes from a mysterious place that the artist—whether composer or novelist—does not fully control or understand. He or she can only remain open to its manifestations. The wind that plays the harp is a master image of Sandian poetics and helps us better understand such geniuses as Chopin and the novelist herself.

[1] George Sand, Sketches and Hints, in Œuvres autobiographiques, ed. G. Lubin (Paris: Gallimard/Pléiade, 1970–71), 2:602.

[2] George Sand, Lettres d’un voyageur, ed. H. Bonnet (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1971), 193.

[3] Aristotle, Problemata, section XXX. An apocryphal text according to some, but one for which no critic has been able to summon solid proofs one way or the other.

[4] George Sand, Les maîtres mosaïstes, ed. H. Lavagne (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Chêne, 1993), 47.

[5] Ibid., 61.

[6] Plato, Œuvres, trans. V. Cousin (Paris: Bossange, 1822–34), 7 vol. in-8.

[7] Letter dated November 29, 1866, in Correspondance Sand-Flaubert, 102–3; emphasis in original.

[8] George Sand, Histoire de ma vie, in Œuvres autobiographiques, 2:421.

[9] George Sand, Story of My Life, ed. T. Jurgrau (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 1108.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *