The Other Structuralist

Nice article here on the important literary critic Tzvetan Todorov, who, apparently, has written some new books on humanism, the war on terror, and the holocaust.

For Todorov, another push in the direction of worldliness came from an encounter at Oxford in 1972 with Isaiah Berlin. In Duties and Delights, Todorov describes Berlin as a “raconteur extraordinaire…. He filled my glass nonstop with vodka, while he remained sober.” Although the topics of discussion ranged from Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak to modern painting, it was Berlin’s cosmopolitan mien and his observations on contemporary politics that made the deepest impressions upon the young Bulgarian émigré. Following the meeting with Berlin, he no longer felt justified remaining aloof from political life and public affairs-facets of life that his communist youth had rendered permanently suspect.

One manifestation of Todorov’s change in perspective was his newfound enthusiasm for the theories of the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Instead of focusing on structural homologies or archaeological constants, Bakhtin stressed the polyphonic dimension of literary texts: the congeries of voices that incessantly jockeyed for narrative supremacy. In pathbreaking studies of Rabelais and Dostoevsky, Bakhtin demonstrated how literary works communicated with each other over time, a phenomenon which he called “intertextuality.” Thereby, Bakhtin succeeded in introducing a much-needed “diachronic” or historical dimension into literary study. His emphasis on the open-ended, multi-vocal aspects of narrative helped to undermine structuralism’s pretensions to an all-encompassing scientific determinism.

One of the chief merits of Bakhtin’s approach was that it succeeded in restoring a crucial measure of freedom to the interpretation of literary works. Authors and characters ceased being, as with structuralism, epiphenomenal manifestations of pre-existing lexical invariants. Instead, via the interpretive innovations of dialogism and polyphony, characters regained a measure of figurative autonomy. As Todorov explained in Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Principle in 1981, Bakhtin’s singular achievement was to restore a human dimension to literary study. With Bakhtin, “the theory of literature once again exceeds its limits: it is the human being itself that is irreducibly heterogeneous; it is human ‘being’ that exists only in dialogue. Within being one finds the Other.” The encounter with Bakhtin would have a lasting impact on Todorov’s thought. It sharpened his alienation from the arid preoccupations of literary formalism and kindled his turn toward the history of ideas. It precipitated his rejection of structuralist determinism in favor of the values of meaning and individual freedom.



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