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Tzvetan Todorov: 1939-2017

Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian-French literary theorist and, latterly, historian of ideas, political thinker and moralist, died in Paris on Tuesday aged seventy-seven.

Todorov was born in 1939 in Sofia, the child of a university professor and a librarian who initially welcomed the postwar communist regime but who became increasingly dismayed at the political persecution of some of their friends and the imposition of a strict political line on all questions.

At school and university, Todorov said he gravitated towards the study of myth and folk tale as a means of trying to avoid the pervasive imposition of the interpretative framework of dialectical materialism (“diamat”). In 1963, with the benefit of financial assistance from relations in Canada, he was able to go to Paris, where he completed his doctorate, under Roland Barthes, in 1966. He became a French citizen in 1973.

Todorov’s early work was chiefly in poetics and literary theory, but he soon broadened out into more general studies in history and cultural anthropology. Among his recurring themes were totalitariansm, the nature of good and evil and the construction of the opposition between ourselves and others (the latter often seen as “the barbarian”). He also wrote on art history and had a particular affection for Dutch painting and its celebration of the domestic and the everyday (as opposed to the acts, or supposed acts, of gods and heroes).

Stef Montefiore in Corriere della Sera recalls that while Todorov was always willing to give interviews related to current events he “preferred to wait a few days until things had calmed down” as he wished to have time to think. The interviews were always conducted over tea at the same table in the back of the Latin Quarter cafe La Contrescarpe: “He always answered calmly and in his usual clear and excellent French, still marked with a light Bulgarian accent after fifty years in Paris.”

Todorov wrote a short book in 2006, L’Esprit des Lumières (translated as In Defence of the Enlightenment) and he continued to cherish and defend French and European values while maintaining that immigrants to Europe from other societies with other religious and cultural traditions could not be compelled to love them – their sole strict obligation in their host countries was to obey the law. He saw contemporary European society and its democratic and constitutional norms as being threatened by political messianism, populism and ultraliberalism.

In his most recently published book, Insoumis (not yet translated into English), he outlined a pantheon of heroes, fighters for justice and against totalitarianism: Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish writer who died at Auschwitz, the French résistante and ethnologist Germaine Tillion, Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nelson Mandela. A noticeable absentee is perhaps Gandhi, of whom Todorov said:  “A sort of fanatic of non-violence, a little too systematic for my tastes. His radical refusal of modernity, which he associated with the English occupier, is also strange to me. He didn’t want trams or trains.”

In an interview last December in Le Monde, Todorov said he was sceptical of the concept of good, preferring simple kindness. He cited the Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman, the author of the World War II masterpiece Life and Fate, as someone “for whom evil mostly comes from those who want to impose good on others.”

Sources: New York Times, El Periódico de Catalunya, Corriere della Sera.

The Dublin Review of Books review of Todorov’s In Defence of the Enlightenment is here: http://www.drb.ie/essays/stop-the-lights