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  • Todorov and the Subject of History
  • Nathan Bracher (bio)

The conventional wisdom has long been that the private lives and itineraries of scholars and intellectuals should be kept apart from their research and writing, and for good reason. Who does not recognize the dangers and excesses of a reductionist biographical approach? Thankfully, we have long since abandoned the practices of Sainte-Beuve and Gustave Lanson. Refusing to take into account any and all subjective involvement in the research and writing of history and the social sciences, however, results in a truncated epistemology and a falsely "objective" abstraction of knowledge. Such is the case for the rich life and influential work of Tzvetan Todorov.

It is well known that Todorov was anything but socialite or media figure. Having had only once the privilege of meeting and sharing a meal with him some twenty years ago, I barely knew him personally. I can nevertheless affirm with confidence that nothing was farther from his manner of articulating and disseminating ideas than earth-shattering pronouncements thundered out urbi et orbi to the press and media. He was clearly uninterested in being in the spotlight, and found ostentatious, celebrity-style public interventions repugnant. He accordingly refused to rally under the flag of any particular party, cause, or candidate. At the same time, however, he was anything but indifferent to his role as a citizen in the life of the polis: he readily spoke out on what was happening in the world, particularly when matters of prejudice, injustice, or violence were involved.

We would do well not to overlook the many autobiographical passages in his writings. Todorov took a particular interest in the late fifteenth-century encounter of European cultures with the cultures of the New World and all that would ensue over the course of the sixteenth century and beyond. He saw in that tumultuous, often tragic concatenation of events a parable of the culture shock that he himself had experienced, albeit in a much less dramatic way and in a completely different context, when he came to live in France in the early 1960s. In any case, that is how Todorov himself accounted for the significance of his own subjective involvement in the orientation of his research: "I could no longer study them [the subjects that had captured his attention] without taking [End Page 60] into account all that within my own identity, drove me toward them: I therefore strove to draw the most from my personal experience," he writes in the introduction to La Signature Humaine.1 In that same introduction, Todorov confides that it was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that finally opened for him the possibility of giving an unsparing analysis of totalitarianism.

It is indeed beginning with On Human Diversity, first published in French in 1989, that we find so many of his books beginning with pages that emphasize his own subjectivity as a naturalized French citizen and intellectual, thus stressing his early years in Bulgaria, where he had had to deal with Stalinist totalitarianism on a daily basis not only on the level of social institutions, but also within his own family and personal relations. Todorov therefore articulates the autobiographical reasons leading him to focus on one subject or another, and points out the particular bases of his own manner of formulating such and such problem or of picking out and zeroing in on some particular subject. Such remarks can be found in the first few pages (and elsewhere) of Facing the Extreme, A French Tragedy, L'homme dépaysé, Hope and Memory: Lessons From the Twentieth Century, Les Aventuriers de l'absolu, The Fear of Barbarians, La Signature humaine, and The Inner Enemies of Democracy.

Such frequent and prominent presence of these autobiographical passages is not the result of random chance, nor does it correspond to any yielding to personal vanity. Todorov is clearly intent on laying his cards on the table at the outset of his writings. But that is not all. Todorov's insistence on marking the personal factors informing his research and writing represent both a human and an epistemological stance that is crucial not only for the significance he attributes...