Remembering Tzvetan Todorov
Todorov was born in 1939 in Bulgaria, and when under Communist rule, he moved to Paris in 1963 and soon became a French citizen. He studied under the famous linguist Roman Jakobson, and moved in the same circles as such notable thinkers as Roland Barthes. His early works are primarily concerned with literature, linguistics and language, such as his well-known study of Russian Formalism, the figure of Mikhail Bakhtin, and literary genres.
Over the last two decades, however, Todorov moved increasingly away from over specialization to become a true European polymath, with intellectual concerns which stretched from primitive Flemish painting, to the intellectual figure of Spanish painter Goya – whom Todorov compared to Goethe – as well as the conquest of America and the discovery of “the other”.
Increasingly too, Todorov’s writings became concerned with the cause of democracy and individual liberties, which he declared to be in danger, and what he saw as the steady erosion of Western democratic values by the forces of unfettered neo-liberalism.
As he put in in a recent interview with the cultural supplement of Spanish newspaper El Mundo:
“After the fall of the Berlin wall, new ideologies emerged, the hard-line neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism which govern Europe and the world today, and which weaken the basis of democracy. Democracy is based on the sovereignty of the people and individual freedom. Under totalitarianism, the hypertrophy of the collective supressed individual freedom; today in Europe, we are witnessing the frenzied expansion of the collective as a result of the domination of the economic sphere. The neo-liberal doctrine which governs us today holds sway over and above political power, protects elites, and, in such a way, undermines society”.
In his The Fear of Barbarians, Todorov argues that all cultures are inherently mestizo or hybrid – think, for example, of the importance of the Bible, a book from the Middle East, on Western culture – and tackles issues such as the phenomena of mass immigration and multiculturalism, Islam and the West, and the politically charged usage of terms such as civilization and barbarity. Todorov rightly contends that civilization and barbarity always co-exist within societies and that to confuse the fruits of civilization – for example, works of art – with civilization itself is a grave mistake. His book is a measured and rational rejoinder to the hysterical and catastrophist school of thinkers like Oriana Fallaci, and their political equivalents like, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, who equate the arrival of Muslim immigrants to the end of Western civilisation.
In The Fear of Barbarians, published back in 2008, Todorov almost prophetically warns that “it is the fear of the barbarians which threatens to turn us into barbarians today”. A quick look at the news headlines in the United Kingdom and the USA today would suggest Todorov is absolutely right.
Todorov’s more recent works are books such as The Inner Enemies of Democracy, in which Todorov lambasts the neo-liberal conceit of the end of History and warns that the biggest danger to democracy lies in the heart of western societies themselves, more specifically in the neo-liberal hubris which led to the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Todorov goes on to name the three great enemies of democracy of our times: messianism, populism and ultra-liberalism.
Todorov’s final book, published as Insumisos in Spanish, or Resisters as it might be called if translated into English, was published just last year. Here, Todorov recounts the lives and feats of a series of individuals who refused to accept the status quo and fought against all the odds for political change. The book pays tribute to historical figures such as Dutch concentration camp diarist Etty Hillesum, French resistance fighter Germaine Tilion, the Russian poet Boris Pasternak and Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and Edward Snowden.
With the unfolding of the deeply concerning political events of 2016, the loss of a European intellectual of Tzvetan Todorov’s stature is a huge blow to the cause of liberty, democracy and human rights in the world today. By reading him and talking about his ideas, we do the small thing we can to mitigate that loss.
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