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Philosophy and Literature 28.1 (2004) 223-225

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Devoirs et Délices d'une vie de passeur: Entretiens avec Catherine Portevin, by Tzvetan Todorov; 395 pp. Paris: Les Éditions du Seuil, 2002, €22.

Caveat lector. Let the reader beware: this is no leisurely, nostalgic stroll by another Parisian intellectual now ruminating and pontificating over issues and events outside his competence. True to his vocation as ferryman (passeur), Todorov guides the reader over the vast expanses of historical, ideological, and intensely personal terrain that he has explored as an émigré of Bulgaria, a brilliant Structuralist, French citizen, father, spouse, and son caring for his aged father. The resulting mosaic composes a narrative itinerary rich in intellectual history.

The exceptional range of Todorov's experience and research affords him a unique perspective. Having first lived and studied under Stalinism, he distinguished himself as a Parisian literary scholar stressing the primacy of the linguistic. Now internationally renowned, his books cover a broad spectrum of human experience, including the Holocaust, WWII, totalitarianism, the ethics of memory, the role and function of the intellectual, race and culture, ethnocentrism and conquest, and, most recently, human identity and a new humanism. Having immersed himself in numerous contexts, Todorov has acquired extensive firsthand knowledge from within. He is nevertheless adept at standing back and assessing them from without, revealing idiosyncrasies and limitations. His uncompromising scrutiny bows to no ideological a priori, nor spares any sacred cow.

Some pronouncements will ruffle feathers in a number of intellectual aviaries. He values literature, for example, above philosophy, science, and the social sciences as a source of not only beauty, but meaning and truth. Contrary to the tendency to view literature as an arbitrary construction used to further an agenda of socio-economic domination and political repression, he contends that literary texts can best enrich our vision of the world and our personal sensibilities. Stressing art's essential humanity while challenging the obsession with science and technology, Todorov views language as neither estranged from reality nor subjugated by politics. Hence the impossibility of isolating literature from ethics and existence: writers legitimately seek to come to terms with the human condition, communicating experiences and sensibilities we would otherwise ignore. [End Page 223]

Criticism, contends Todorov, should accordingly plunge back into the work's context or thought, as does Bénichou in studying French Classicism, or Joseph Frank in analyzing Dostoyevsky, or else it should explore anthropological perspectives, as does René Girard. Todorov's focus remains squarely on the literary work, not on the genius of theory: we have more to learn from texts of all ages than from contemporary critics who embed them in systems, reducing them to mere examples of theory.

Beyond the "ethnocentrism" (p. 124) that he sees in the tendency to approach literary works through current preoccupations, Todorov delivers a severe verdict on the Marxist intellectuals so prominent throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s: ". . . the thirty years (1945-1975) that were so glorious for the French economy [were] disastrous for political thought. Ideologically, these are years of stagnation and of an intellectual straight jacket in which all discourse was judged by the measure of Marxist-Leninist dogma" (pp. 144-45, translation mine). Todorov thus deplores such irresponsibility: all while enjoying the many material comforts and civil freedoms of a free-market, democratic society, "bobos" (bourgeois bohèmes) advocated the instauration of a totalitarian regime whose economic failures and political repression Todorov had known only too well. Their actions thus were not in keeping with their discourse, for they made no effort to seriously weigh the concrete results of their ideology.

Like Tony Judt, who voices similar criticisms in Past Imperfect and The Burden of Responsibility, Todorov prefers Raymond Aron's intellectual rigor and Camus's humane moderation to Sartre's knee-jerk radicalism and futile gesticulations. Given Todorov's experience and erudition, such criticisms can neither be brushed aside nor attributed to being a rear-guard action. He moreover distributes incisive criticisms to the Right, to the Left, and even to the Center. But...


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