Biography of Tzvetan Todorov

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* Book: Devoirs et delices: une vie de passeurs. Entretiens avec Catherine Portevin. Seuil.


Michel Bauwens, 2003:

- This is a book of interviews recalling the life and intellectual achievements of the inter-disciplinary French-Bulgarian author, Tzvetan Todorov. He traversed the second half of the previous century meeting a remarkable array of minds and intellectual movements. The beginning of the book recalls his early experiences and education as a linguist in Bulgarian, and his adaptation to French culture, being losely associated with structuralism. He also describes the dominance of Marxist thought in the academia of that time, particularly the influence of Sartre, and the stifling effects this had.

- A recurring theme is the position of the foreigner in a for him alien culture, and the process of mutual adaptation, the topic also of his book on the conquest of America. Todorov stresses that if Cortes won with such a small band of soliders, it was because he was such a communicator, looking immediately for translators, trying to understand the new world, and the inner contradictions that he could exploit, through manipulative communication. Faced with Cortes as a man with instrumental reason and a ability to adapt and innovate, there is Montezuma, a prisoner of ritual and mythology.

- T.T. has introduced the concept of 'Exotopy', to describe a situation, seen from an 'outside'. He cites Tocqueville on America, and Louis Dumont's description of the Indian caste system (Homo Hierarchicus). He describes Louis Dumont as a key thinker reflecting on the interplay between equality and hierarchy: "il faut chaque fois reflechir a l'articulation des deux".

- The conversation then goes to the topic of humanism. Two phases are distinguished, one in the Renaissance when scholars of the humanities rediscover non-christian texts, and the XVIIIth cy French philosophers like Montesqieu and Rousseau. Humanism is described as the doctrine that puts the human in a central position both as source of knowledge and as the goal of the action. In Antiquity the spiritual and human domains were distinctive, but Christianity, through the Roman 'Christian' emperor, creates a unitary political-theological state were the two are confounded. Modernity will break that link again.

- In his book, "Le Jardin Imparfait", he describes the conservative position on modernity, which, they say, makes humanity pay a 'triple price':

- 1) solitude, because it destroys social bonds

- 2) meaninglessness, because materialism destroys higher values

- 3) powerlessness, because its emphasis on unconscious and systemic processes undermines the feeling of unity and the control of the self.

- Todorov is also an admirer of Benjamin Constant, who contributed to political thought through a synthesis of Montesqieu and Rousseau, mixing popular sovereignty and individual liberty, the latter being the great failure of the French Revolution.

Todorov, in describing the current humanism, says that it currently has two main enemies:

- 1) scientism, i.e. the doctrine that everything is knowable (but only knowable through science), and claims that our political and moral choices (should) proceed from that knowledge, instead of from our values or will

- 2) individualism

- The discussion then turns to political engagement, which he distinguishes from responsibility, defined as the adequacy between theory and practice. He contrasts Raymond Aron, faithful to an 'objective' understanding of the world, and thus welling to transcent 'feelings' and Camus, faithful to his subjective values and the adequacy of his actions therewith. This is followed by a long development on the moral life in extreme situations. such as German extermination camps, where he examines not only 'good and evil', but also resistance to the different shades of evil. From the ordinary compassion bent on saving threatened and concrete individuals such as the Jews, vs. heroic resistance in the name of abstract principles such as justice.

- As I am finishing this book of conversations, what stands out is that Todorov is foremost an author on intersubjectivity, on how we are constituted by our relations and how, in his work, he is concerned with building bridges. His hallmark is moderation.

- The following thought came to me about Wilber's work and the evolution of 'world-centricity'. Yes, we can extend our circle of care and concern, but no, individually we can never fully embrace multiple perspectives, which is why the next stage of civilization and consciousness, cannot be but dialogic, a common work.


Todorov on Structuralism

Todorov writes that structuralism tries to extract the object of study from the subject producing it, for example, looking at a text without its author. For Todorov, this is a dangerous illusion. He gives as an example the scientific work of Claude Levi-Strauss whose scientific work in Mythologiques has lost much of its value, with only the conclusion still worth reading, while his personal reflections in Tristes Tropiques have withstood the test of time, and are still magisterial.

The Conquest of the Americas

"La conquete de l'Amerique" is an account of the conquest of the Americans, drawing not only on the accounts of the Spanish, but also on those of the Aztecs.

Todorov on Louis Dumont's Homo Hierarchicus vs Homo Aequalis

In Homo Hierarchicus, Dumont looked at the Indian caste system to find its coherence; this then helps to look at the contrast with the western conception of Homo Aequalis, which has a different coherence, but isn't necessarily better. This echoes his exotopian themes, looking from the outside in, as he looks at equality from the point of view of hierarchy, and vice versa. Just as Tocqueville looked at American democracy from the point of view of an aristocrat.