(the case of Tzvetan Todorov) Oana Fotach - Inter



(the case of Tzvetan Todorov) Oana Fotach - Inter
Estranging the Self. Protocols of Objectivity in Literary Theory and Their Dismantling (the
case of Tzvetan Todorov)
Oana Fotache Dubalaru
The process through which modern literary theory strove to obtain the status of a respectable
(human) science involved the obliteration of the theorist’s self. Hardly can one find any
reference to the theorist’s individuality or personal motivations in its (neo)positivist trends.
This paradigm took its most radical form at the end of the sixties, when the French theorists
Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault ‘evacuated’ the author from the field of discourse.
Soon after that, as a side effect of the postmodernist drive towards reconsidering subjectivity
as expressed by the appearance of the author’s self in the text, and also of the poststructuralist turn in literary theory, the self ‘came back’ as a focus of critical interest.
From this perspective, I will discuss some of the books and essays authored by the FrenchBulgarian critic and theorist Tzvetan Todorov (b. 1939), who directly experienced different
stages in the evolution and representation of the author’s self in his texts. I will draw attention
not only to his more personal narratives but also to the masked presence of the self in his
former ‘objective’ books. In this respect, Todorov’s intellectual career resembles those of
other exile theorists coming from East-Central Europe, such as Julia Kristeva, John Neubauer,
or Matei Calinescu.
In 2007, Tzvetan Todorov published a paper in New Literary History titled “What is
Literature For?” The piece is actually a brief autobiography. At the same time it is also a brief
history of a troubled social/ intellectual period: that of literary theory’s ‘rise and fall’. The
author begins by evoking his own childhood in his parents’ library; his studentship at the
University of Sofia, during the second half of the 50s, and the origins of his countrymen’s
doubletalk; his option for the linguistic study of literature as a means to avoid ideological
commitment. In 1963 Todorov is awarded a one-year scholarship in Paris. We are then told
about the first encounter between the young Bulgarian, still unsure of his French accent, and
the French historian André Aymard, at the time dean of the Faculty of Letters in Sorbonne
and a specialist in Ancient Greek history. The Dean proves to be less informed about the state
of the art in literary studies (that is, the emergent Structuralism) than the newcomer, and the
young man realizes that he was not to find here what he was searching for. This delightful
scene fulfills a key role in understanding the theorist’s self-construction. In his youth he was
marked by the habitual complex of the intellectual coming from a marginal culture, eager as
he was to embrace the latest theoretical fashion in order to feel integrated in the new
Further in the article Todorov explains his career after more than 4 decades spent in France
through a series of fortunate events, among which his meetings with Barthes and Genette. His
debut on the French literary market capitalizes on his Bulgarian heritage: the well-known
anthology Théorie de la littérature (1965) introduces the Russian Formalist School to the
French. A first version of Todorov’s Poétique was soon to come out in 1967 (English
translation Introduction to Poetics, 1981) and it was to be revised and reprinted in 1973. Its
sources are quite diverse; the most consistent is obviously that of the Russian School. To this
Todorov adds the legitimating influences of Paul Valéry as poetician, of the linguist Charles
Bally, founder of the French school of stylistics, and closer to us, of another famous linguist,
Emile Benveniste.
The same influences are to be found in the theoretical setup of Todorov’s Grammaire du
Décaméron (1969; Grammar of Narrative), an analysis of Boccaccio’s Decameron that
functions as an applied pendant of the Poetics. Todorov’s trust in the explanatory capacity of
his Poetics is still great at the time, and this vision actually commands the protocols of literary
analysis developed here. The objective is strictly expressed as follows: “L’objet qu’on se
propose d’étudier ici est la NARRATION” (Grammaire du Décaméron, p. 9). Therefore an
abstraction… Boccaccio’s novel provides only the “privileged example”. Interestingly
enough, there are still some shadow areas, some slight and infrequent hesitations yet all the
more significant for that matter: the author recognizes the failure of his abstract model when it
comes to analyze certain stories from the Decameron. This is because those stories require an
analysis that is able to account for their symbolic or psychological dimension. And the
“Afterword” to the volume displays a clear distrust that appears to have widened in the course
of the analytical exercise. Nevertheless Todorov insists on the necessity and also the
possibility to elaborate a grammar of narrative that would use Noam Chomsky’s famous
generative model. One can easily perceive here the same methodological rigor that dominated
the style of the structuralist epoch, a style that Todorov will abandon almost completely
during the 80s.
An important moment on Todorov’s route away from structuralism and towards the history of
ideas and cultural anthropology was The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary
Genre (Seuil, 1970). At first glance this books seems easily placeable in the direct continuity
of The Grammar of Narrative. The fantastic genre provides a kind of ideal object for
structural analysis, even though it is more complex than both fairytale and myth. Yet his tone
in The Fantastic… is less sure of itself; and the analytical instruments fail to convey the
former sense of self-confidence.
The Fantastic begins with a critique of the genre theory developed by the Canadian Northrop
Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism. Todorov’s choice is perfectly legitimate: Frye was a
defender of theory whom the French structuralists could invoke in support of their theses.
While appreciating the merits of Frye’s system of genres, Todorov nevertheless exposes its
inconsistencies. All of a sudden, the up-to-then sober discourse slides into a vertigo: “An
objection to our own objections might be: if Frye enumerates only five genres (modes) out of
the thirteen possibilities that are theoretically available, it is because these five genres have
existed, which is not true of the eight others.” (The Fantastic, 1973, p. 13) How does Todorov
manage to come out of this danger (and “rescue” Frye as well)? By making recourse to the
stable field of structural oppositions and consequently distinguishing the “historical” from the
“theoretical genres”. Frye, in the footsteps of Aristotle, described in the Anatomy of Criticism
(1957) only the historical genres that had a ‘real’ existence but foresaw the possibility of
theoretical ones. Todorov takes on this very mission which is an almost science-fictional one;
he justifies it in a hallucinatory manner, by invoking Mendeleyev’s periodic table of elements:
„if one of these combinations had in fact been never been manifested, we should describe it
even more deliberately: just as in Mendeleyev’s system one could describe the properties of
elements not yet discovered, similarly we shall describe here the properties of genres – and
therefore of works – still to come.” (p. 14) Thus the ideal of scientific precision may even
dispose of its object. This is a splendid utopia, yet with a tragic fate, as any other utopian
The other objection that Todorov raises against Frye’s theory is that the latter cannot pursue
the structural project to its limits. (And we can find here the trace of a personal sense of
“guilt”.) It is true that Frye set the literary works into a system of oppositions, but these were
borrowed from discourses external to literature.
Todorov approaches the object of his new book – the fantastic – from the perspective already
established in his Poetics. It looks like another confirmation of the latter, together with The
Grammar of Narrative. Yet now the theorist hesitates between several points of view: the
structural one (in defining and describing the genre); the thematic one (employed in chapters
7 and 8, “Themes of the self” and “Themes of the other”, respectively; here, Todorov seems
to be returning in a nostalgic manner to Frye or Gilbert Durand, yet rebuking thematic
criticism as such, the kind practiced by Jean-Pierre Richard, for instance); one can find also
here a functional and a pragmatic/ reception approach. About the latter Todorov remarks –
and turns this into a defining feature – that “the fantastic, unlike many other genres, includes
numerous indications as to the role the reader must play” (p. 89). He will describe the
fantastic genre from the reader’s horizon, as an unresolved hesitation between the uncanny
and the marvelous. This is already an important move away from the Grammar of Narrative.
In the conclusion to the chapter on “Literary genres” the theorist stages his doubts and
uncertainties: “Such are our objectives; but upon closer inspection, we cannot help doubting
the success of the enterprise” (p. 21); and further on: “The goal of knowledge is an
approximate truth, not an absolute one” (p. 23). Let us keep in mind this problematizing of the
truth that is going to be resumed in L’Homme dépaysé (Seuil, 1996). The structuralist
penchant towards logical thinking and establishing clear-cut oppositions will eventually lead
to a dissolution of Todorov’s certainties from the beginning of his intellectual career. We
cannot help noticing that the hesitation he attributes to the reader when recognizing the
fantastic actually corresponds to his own methodological doubts. This way the theorist’s
profile gains in complexity.
Before entering into a detailed discussion on Conquest of America: The Question of the
Other, whence Todorov’s tone (if not the method) undergoes a radical change, I wish to signal
an abandoned form of searching for theoretical originality – an impulse that Todorov surely
inherited from his maître, Roland Barthes. With Theories of the Symbol (1977) Todorov finds
himself on the verge of stepping outside the field of structural linguistics and building a
theory of symbolism; and he did not find a solution at that point. The innovative touch is
provided by the historical perspective used as such, not just as a preamble to the building of a
theory. In addition, we come across the “director’s cut” technique which he would later use in
Conquest of America and other books as well: a clear delineation of his object, focusing on a
period of crisis that illuminates the end of a road and the opening of another. The author does
not come to light except for the margins of his text: “Explication du titre” and “Ouvertures”
(that actually close the volume). Todorov used to criticize the thematic approach in his The
Fantastic; yet now he’s making a kind of confession in that same vein, insisting on the
illuminating value of the reading experience as expressed by Georges Poulet’s criticism (La
Conscience critique, 1971). The paragraph I have in mind is not about Todorov. The theorist
projects himself onto Roman Jakobson’s figure, a prominent member of the Russian School
and one of his models: “Si’il me fallait choisir un fait de la biographie de Jakobson pour en
faire le symbole [contamination between the discourse and its object], ce serait celui-ci: un
adolescent âgé de dix-huit ans est brûlé par les vers de trois poètes contemporains, de peu ses
aînés: Khlebnikov, Maïakovski, Pasternak; il se promet de ne jamais oublier cette expérience.
(…) Non seulement il a consacré trois études fondamentales à ces poètes, mais toute sa
conception de la poésie repose sur une généralisation de son expérience première.” (Théories
du symbole, 1985, pp. 351-2). What impresses the reader here is the manner of exposing an
author’s self-construction (both Jakobson’s and Todorov’s) between project and wager,
linguistics and poetics. In a few year span, Todorov’s landmarks will be poetics and ethics in
a balanced way.
Theories of the Symbol concludes with a lucid self-interrogation of an anthropological kind:
“[il s’agit] de retourner sur soi le regard d’observation porté sur les autres, de se demander ce
que cette recherche veut dire, non par le contenu explicite des exposés qui la constituent, mais
par son existence même…” (p. 357) What the theorist’s ego accomplishes through this look is
the opening towards plurality and difference – an opening that Todorov interprets as an
overcome of the traditional alternative between ‘the classic’ and ‘the romantic’ in the field of
the human sciences. “J’étais „romantique” au moment où je commençais à écrire ces pages;
parvenu à la fin, je ne pouvais le rester: je me vois autre” (357); and in the same vein:
“L’esthétique romantique affirme, à son extrême, que chaque oeuvre est sa propre norme, que
chaque message construit son code. Je crois aujourd’hui en une pluralité des normes et des
discours.” (p. 358). How powerful and seductive is this presence of a subjectivity that finally
allows itself to enter front stage with all its weaknesses, displaying its full individuality. And
what a difference from the Poetics, where one could hardly find a verb or a pronoun in the
first person singular…
No surprise that 5 years later, with The Conquest of America, this tone, still marked by the
scientific ideal in Theories of the Symbol, comes to the fore so naturally.
As Bernadette Bucher wrote in her article on Todorov from Dictionnaire des intellectuels
français (2009), during this time of his life and career the theorist “traverse une sorte de crise
épistémologique et morale qui, dans les années 80, va changer radicalement les buts qu’il se
propose, les thèmes abordés et le style de son écriture.” (p. 1116)
The Conquest of America’s Table of contents preserves the structure of cognitive predicates
that is so characteristics of structural thinking (the English translation from 1984 converts
them into nouns: discovery, conquest, love, knowledge). Yet this time the structural grid is
modelled and distorted by a different content that asks for a moral understanding instead of
rigorous knowledge. Or at least mediates between the two. “Discovery” begins by presenting
the author’s doubts and the stages of his choice: “Mais comment en parler?” (La Conquête de
l’Amérique. La question de l’autre, Seuil, 1982, p. 11) “J’ai choisi de raconter une histoire”
(11). Writing himself as the author of this book, Todorov adopts the moralist’s angle and not
the historian’s, and proposes the reader “une histoire exemplaire” that recovers the ethical
dimension of the so-called “discovery”: “comment se comporter à l’égard d’autrui?” (12). The
explanatory discourse has still a technical, structuralist character: “Des nombreux récits qui
s’offrent à nous, j’en ai choisi un: celui de la découverte et de la conquête de l’Amérique.
Pour mieux faire, je me suis donné une unité de temps: la centaine d’années qui suit le
premier voyage de Colon, c’est-à-dire en gros le seizième siècle; une unité de lieu: la région
des Caraïbes et du Mexique (…); enfin une unité d’action: la perception que les Espagnols ont
des Indiens sera mon unique sujet…” (8). But more important is the theme as such, the
conquest of America presented as “une rencontre extrême, et exemplaire” (12). From here
Todorov’s interest will advance in the following years towards totalitarianism studies; he will
approach the two dominant forms of totalitarianism in the 20th century, namely fascism and
communism, and will take advantage of his personal experience as an exile from a country
behind the Iron Curtain.
There are two historical characters by whom Todorov is utterly fascinated and with whom he
identifies, albeit on different levels. One of these is Columbus himself. Todorov sees in him
as in a mirror the discoverer’s vanity who actually comes across what he already knows:
“L’interprétation des signes de la nature que pratique Colon est déterminée par le résultat
auquel il lui faut aboutir. Son exploit même, la découverte de l’Amérique, relève du même
comportement: il ne la découvre pas, il la trouve là où il ‘savait’ qu’elle serait” (29). And
further on, the theorist remarks Columbus’s “capacité à voir les choses telles que cela lui
convient” (49). Todorov is very ironical of this behavior which he himself has illustrated
earlier. The Renaissance seafarer’s failed hermeneutics will ultimately succeed in Todorov’s
The other character is the mysterious Malinche, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’s
interpreter and mistress of indigenous origin. Todorov praises her as a symbol of cultural
hybridity, at the same time projecting himself into this role: “elle annonce par là l’Etat
moderne du Mexique, et, au-delà, notre état présent à tous, puisque, à défaut d’être toujours
bilingues, nous sommes inévitablement bi- ou tri-culturels. La Malinche glorifie le mélange
au détriment de la pureté (aztèque ou espagnole), et le rôle de l’intermédiaire.” (107) The first
person plural not only unites here the contemporary historian’s horizon with his object’s, but
also creates a community of readers who are invited to identify with a world seemingly
remote and uncommunicable. More often than not there are similarities in what seems to be
irreconcilably different. In this discursive context, the first person appears as the only
adequate choice for the story of America’s conquest, a story so precisely documented and
moving at the same time.
In his books to follow Todorov will focus on the need to harmonize his thinking and
experience, to internalize the themes he approaches. For instance, in the foreword to On
Human Diversity (Nous et les autres) he expresses his discontent towards the divorce of his
professional activity from “the rest of his life” in the 60s and 70s: “Intéressé par les problèmes
de la littérature et du langage, je m’étais alors initié à ce qui s’appelle les sciences humaines
(et sociales). Mais rien de ce que j’arrivais à penser sur le langage ou la littérature n’avait de
relation avec mes convictions ou sympathies” (Nous et les autres, 1989, 9). The need to find
continuity between writing and living determines him to adopt a subjective, hermeneutical
stance: “Et c’est ainsi que, aux sciences humaines et sociales, j’en suis venu à préférer l’essai
moral et politique.” (10) To the meaning of texts the author now adds their truth. Yet not the
positive, ‘exact’ truth, but the ethical reaction openly expressed. Thus, a disturbing book such
as Face à l’extrême (Seuil, 1991) opens with the story of a trip to Warsaw that Todorov
undertook in November 1987, on the occasion of a conference (an experience similar in a way
to J. Derrida’s in Prague, in the 60s). In this context Todorov and some friends visit two
“lieux de mémoire” that leave a powerful mark on their conscience: the church where father
Popieluszko, a martyr of the anti-communist fight, had preached and the Jewish cemetery.
Their association is not a random one: communism and Nazism are thus put on the same level
due to their similar crimes and the suffering provoked to so many people. This will be one of
Todorov’s central themes after his “conversion”: the necessity of memory (especially of the
ghettos or concentration camps), and the study of totalitarianism, be it of any type or
ideology. The lesson that Todorov puts forward (and embodies in it his own past as a citizen
of Bulgaria) is clearly expressed: “à ignorer le passé on risque de le répéter.” (Face à
l’extrême, 1991, 36). The theme of memory is closely connected to that of identity, of the
relation to the Other – a theme also discussed by Julia Kristeva in a famous book marking
another stage in her career as well: Etrangèrs à nous-mêmes, 1988/ Strangers to Ourselves).
And a story too, one that does not require a grammar to interpret it, but calls instead for the
moral sense of the reader. L’Homme dépaysé (1996), Mémoire du mal, tentation du bien
(2000), or Les abus de la mémoire (2004), among other books signed by Todorov from the
80s onwards, mark this “return of the author” in his discourses and themes which this time he
actually inhabits.
Jacques Julliard, Michel Winock, 1996. Dictionnaire des intellectuels français. Les
personnes, les lieux, les moments. Paris: Seuil
Tzvetan Todorov, 2007. “What is Literature For?”. In New Literary History, 2007, 38: 13–32
_________, 1969. Grammaire du Décaméron. The Hague-Paris: Mouton
_________, 1973. The Fantastic. A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. transl. from the
French by Richard Howard. Cleveland/ London: The Press of Case Western Reserve
________, 1977, 1985. Théories du symbole. Paris: Seuil, coll. Points
________, 1982. La Conquête de l’Amérique. La question de l’autre. Paris: Seuil
________, 1989. Nous et les autres. La réflexion française sur la diversité humaine. Paris:
________, 1991. Face à l’extrême. Paris: Seuil