Born in Geneva in 1920 to Jewish parents originally from Poland who are both physicians, Jean Starobinski studies literature and medicine at the University of Geneva. Since he does not obtain Swiss citizenship until 1948, he is not called up in 1939. During the war he meets intellectuals and poets in exile including Pierre Jean Jouve, and publishes his first articles of criticism, columns and poetry reviews in resistance magazines such as Lettres and Suisse contemporaine. Following a period teaching literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Jean Starobinski defends his two doctoral theses: one devoted to Rousseau (La Transparence et l’obstacle, 1957), the other, three years later, to the history of the treatment of melancholy from the earliest times until 1900. From 1958 until his retirement from academic life in 1985, Jean Starobinski teaches the history of ideas, the history of medicine and French literature, mainly at the University of Geneva.
Although he gives up medicine entirely to devote himself to teaching and writing, he dreams of a “history of ideas without frontiers”, constantly working across disciplines, adopting different approaches and forms of enquiry in an effort to comprehend motifs that intrigue him – the opposition of face and mask, bodily perception, the act of giving, melancholy, and so on – and works that exemplify them, practising what he terms a “bilingualism of literature and medicine”. A close reader of texts, Jean Starobinski sets out to reconcile the “means of science, which measures” with a “lived relationship. which understands”, deploying or creating interpretative tools with which to answer the questions that he asks of texts and that the texts themselves throw up. For Starobinski, this non-totalising “critical trajectory” finds its most apt expression in the free and exacting form of the essay, a medium suited to reworking and to persuading its readers through the deployment of language.
The critical and metacritical oeuvre of Jean Starobinski, comprising more than 30 complete works and 800 articles translated into some twenty languages that earned him numerous awards and sixteen doctorates honoris causa, is located at the intersection of the history of ideas, science, literature, art, philosophy and psychoanalysis.
Jean Starobinski dies on 4 March 2019. His archives, comprising a library made up of more than 40,000 works – the library of a “‘cultivated man’ gone to seed” or a “garden run wild” – is conserved in the Swiss Literary Archives.