Richard Wolin has an extended review of several books by Tzvetan Todorov in a recent issue of TNR that provides a neat window into the workings of French theory in the middle of the twentieth century. Todorov came to Paris from Bulgaria in 1963 at the age of 24, already trained in Slavic theory by his reading of Shklovsky, Jakobson, and Propp. He was told at the Sorbonne that nobody in Franch was doing literary study of the kind Todorov suggested, but within a few years structuralism had exploded onto the scene. Todorov played a crucial role by publishing Theorie de la litterature, an anthology of Eastern European theorists, in 1965.
For Todorov, literary theory was a safe zone of escape from the politicized academic world of communist Bulgaria, and he saw structuralist formalism as an apolitical mode of literary study. After an encounter at Oxford with Isaiah Berlin, however, Todorov saw that his attempt to escape history was irresponsible, and he turned from the atemporal formalist criticism to Bakhtin, who, in his view, introduces a necessary “diachronic” element into theory. Bakhtin moves him from structuralism to liberal humanism, driven by what Wolin calls “a keen sense of the vulnerability of other people” that “is quite explicitly a consequence of his coming-of-age in a totalitarian society.” Wolin quotes a long passage from On Human Diversity:
“I was never a direct victim of the regime, since my reaction—like that of many of my compatriots—was not to protest or challenge it, but to take on two distinct personalities: one public and submissive, the other private and independent. And yet in another sense I was a victim … [for] it was then that I became acquainted with evil. It lay in the glaring disparity between what people in power said and the lives they led and allowed us to lead…. It lay in the obligation to make a public display of one’s adherence to the official doctrines, and in the way these declarations robbed the noblest terms of their meaning: ‘liberty,’ ‘equality,’ and ‘justice’ became words that served to mask repression and favoritism, the flagrant disparities in the way individuals were treated. It lay in the assertion that there was a correct approach to every subject, and one only, and in our awareness that this position was determined by and for those in positions of authority at the time, since truth was now merely an effect of force. It lay in the unlimited and arbitrary power that resided with the police and the national security forces, with party members and other officials who could at any moment deprive you of your job, your house, your friends, or your freedom.”
Wolin summarizes Todorov’s vision of humanism this way: “He regards the humanist tradition as a middle way between the extremes of moral universalism—which can be tone-deaf to the demands of local context—and full-blown cultural relativism. For Todorov, humanism entails two fundamental precepts. First, it mandates an understanding of persons as autonomous, self-determining beings—in Todorov’s view, the basis for a meaningful conception of human dignity. As he explains in The Fear of Barbarians, ‘the idea of autonomy means … that every human is able to know the world by himself and to influence his own destiny. Just as the people are sovereign within a democracy, the individual can become so … in the personal sphere; as a result, the very idea of democracy is transformed, since it simultaneously guarantees the sovereignty of the people and the freedom of the individual.’ And humanism, in Todorov’s version of it, demands also an appreciation of the fragility of the human condition, along with an awareness of the disasters that have ensued as a result of politically rash attempts to straighten what Kant called the ‘crooked timber of humanity’—to perfect what is intrinsically imperfectible.”
Todorov’s skepticism about universal crusades and projects has made him a sharp critic of American foreign policy, underneath which he often sees ulterior motives “such as an American desire to save face, and thereby to preserve the global credibility of the American military.” Wolin chides him for not accepting the other side of the equation, for failing to acknowledge the force of the humanist arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention. Still Wolin acknowledges that Todorov must be commended for “the rehabilitation of humanism.”
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, June 13, 2011 at 10:44 am
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