The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Geneva School: A mid-twentieth-century group of literary critics, many of whom were professors at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, who practiced a type of expressive criticism called phenomenological criticism with the aim of experiencing an author’s consciousness and reflecting it in their analysis. Geneva critics, also called critics of consciousness, sought to achieve an intuitive understanding of the author’s subjective mindset and worldview, to get inside the author’s head, so to speak. As Georges Poulet explained in “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority” (1970): “I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, … [that] allows me, with unheard-of license, to think what it thinks and feel what it feels.” In seeking such “consciousness of the consciousness of another,” Geneva critics endeavored to set aside all references external to the text, including their own mindset and worldview, to become a better vessel for the author’s intentionality, or awareness.
Geneva critics believed that an author’s consciousness is unique and fundamentally consistent through time. For instance, prior to his turn to deconstruction, the American critic J. Hillis Miller asserted in Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1959) that “all works of a single writer form a unity, a unity in which a thousand paths radiate from the same center.” Accordingly, Geneva School analyses often ranged over the whole of an author’s writings in search of this unity or center, relating textual elements such as imagery and figurative language to the author’s personal development. Because Geneva critics believed that early writings, like late ones, reveal the same consciousness, they could discuss an adolescent love letter, a poem written during a midlife crisis, and a late novel side by side; when concentrating on a single work, they often sought to reconcile a variety of passages. They also sought to identify what Poulet termed the “point of departure” — the defining, organizing principle of the author’s work, or, as Miller described it in “The Literary Criticism of Georges Poulet” (1963), the “act from which each imaginary universe opens out.”
Rejecting objective approaches to literary criticism, the Geneva School flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, influencing other approaches, including reception theory and reader-response criticism. By the early 1970s, however, the school came under attack from both structuralists and poststructuralist deconstructors. Structuralists found the Geneva critics’ approach unscientific and unduly subjective; deconstructors, who view texts as riven by irreconcilable contradictions, called into question the very notion of the unified psyche or self on which the Geneva School and phenomenological criticism rest. Members of the Geneva School aside from Miller and Poulet included Albert Béguin, founder Marcel Raymond, Jean-Pierre Richard, Jean Rousset, and Jean Starobinski. Influential works include Poulet’s Studies in Human Time (4 vols., 1949—68) and “Phenomenology of Reading” (1969) as well as Miller’s Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (1970). For a study of the Geneva School, see Sarah Lawall’s Critics of Consciousness: The Existential Structures of Literature (1968).