This essay explores the origins of the modern French paradigm of literary genius in the dramatic works of Pierre Corneille. Guided by a critical suggestion inscribed in an often-noted allusion to Corneille's first tragedy, Médée, near the end of Jean Racine's Phèdre, the essay argues that the key to the Cornelian model of literary greatness is the degree to which Corneille identifies his own poetic inspiration with his tragic protagonists, and capitally with the first of them, the eponymous heroine of Médée. When set in dialogue with the ventriloquistic absence of the poet mandated by the classical era's perfection of the specifically theatrical mode of representation, Corneille's identification with his tragic divas constitutes genius as the radical other of the classical cultural order that the canonical “grand Corneille” is wrongly taken to personify. In addition to generating revisionist readings of both Médée and the later Le Cid, the essay thus invites students of French literature to rethink the grounds of French literary culture as a whole.

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