Enlightenment-guided literary critic Jean Starobinksi dead at 98

In 2010, Starobinski donated his collection of over 40,000 books to the literary archives of the Swiss national library in Bern. Michel Starobinski

Jean Starobinski, Swiss literary critic, essayist, and psychiatrist, has died. He is best remembered for his analyses of fellow Geneva philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

This content was published on March 7, 2019 - 20:50

‘Staro’, a well-known intellectual in French-speaking circles but perhaps less so in the English-speaking world, was laid to rest Wednesday in a low-key ceremony. He passed away two days previously in the town of Morges, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Yet the career and life of this intellectual was far from low-key: author of some 30 books and around 900 scientific papers on literature, the history of ideas, and the history of medicine, Starobinski also picked up various accolades and prizes over the years, including the Prix de la Fondation de Genève in 2010.

Born in November 1920 to Jewish parents who had fled repression in Poland to study medicine in Geneva, Starobinski grew up in a cultured, multilingual, and secular environment, and developed an early interest in literature and particularly Rousseau.

Nevertheless, along with his studies in literature (under the guidance of another emblematic intellectual figure of the 20th century, Marcel Raymond), he also took a degree in medicine, specialising in psychiatry. 

It was a choice that would later give his analyses a wide ranging and deep flavour – indeed, he would also become particularly interested in the idea of melancholy, or in today’s lingo, depression.

Distinguished career

In 1958 he earned his doctorate degree for a work on Rousseau titled “Transparency and the Obstacle”, which would become a reference in the field of literary criticism. His career as a critic and professor went on to span several decades; he retired in 1985.

Though Starobinski spent most of his life in Geneva – where he was an oft-seen stroller on the sprawling Plainpalais flea-market in the centre of the city – he also spent some years teaching in the US, at John Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore.

He was married to Jaqueline, an ophthalmologist.

His death sparked fond reactions across French-speaking Switzerland and beyond: French president Emmanuel Macron also tweeted his condolences to a “Swiss citizen, a universal mind, who allowed us advance further in the arts and literature, and who served French culture.”

“An eminent representative of Europe and culture has left us, a culture that brings us together and makes us more human,” Macron wrote.

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