Friday, May 25

Tzvetan Todorov interview to Seji Doria

"Exile enables you to observe your own habits critically, and to be able to diminish their importance when you live in a different society."
Tzvetan Todorov

I have the pleasure of having Tzvevan Todorov, who fled to Paris from the communist Bulgaria in 1963, again at this blog. Now I see how lucky I was having so many good theorists as masters even if at that time I did not consider them as such.

As I studied Literature in the end of the seventies and beginning of eighties I had a bunch of philosophers, linguistics, social scientists, psychoanalysts even literature scholars and theorists and art historians to choose. I did read some and others I ignored following a choice that is hard for me to explain.
But those who really counted were the artists and writers. They are part of who I am and some thinkers too for I choose some that talked to me more closely.

Todorov is one of them for he studied the fantastic in literature. His interviews are amazing and he talks with a smile in his eyes and concern in his forehead. Sometimes I watch what is at YouTube and I feel... I don't know how to explain. Maybe it is because he speaks in French and talks in French in discussions and as I lived in Paris and had a group of French thinkers in Brazil I used to participate it must give me back a territory I like. "It's through fear that the most unacceptable actions are carried out." he claims and defends that Europe should create a "peaceful power" a military action to protect contre attacks. "I'm not a pacifist." says the man who criticized his Marxists friends of living a bourgeois life trying to implement the proletarian dictatorship a regime that suppress civil liberties.

In an interview to Seji Doria, who brightly conducted the interview in June, 2010, published at Barcelona Metropolis Todorov portrayed a panorama of his experiences of life and thoughts.

In 1963, you fled to Paris from communist Bulgaria, and three years later you obtained you doctorate at the Sorbonne with Roland Barthes, you joined the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and for ten years, you were the co-editor of the journal Poétique with Gérard Genette. What contribution did structuralism make to literary reception?

Todorov: At that time, it was a more refreshing perspective on literary studies. The approaches to literature in France were sterilising, asphyxiating. Specialists were asked to compile all the details about the writer being studied. Life, work… a mere accumulation of facts: biography, the conditions under which he wrote his novels, the different versions of them, the entire body of criticism that covered his works. It was a historicist criticism that insisted on placing the work of an author in a specific context, without paying too much attention to what it wanted to say to the readers. As a result, we couldn't say why it was still a pleasure to read Madame Bovary or Le rouge et le noir in the 21st century …

And that was your methodological starting point…

Todorov: It based criticism on interpretation of the text, and not only on its historical context. Structuralism enabled us to shed light - forgive the repetition - on the literary structure with more precision than had been the case previously – to renew different forms of meaning and rhetorical figures. To learn that narration provides us with various techniques and constants in the construction of the classic novel, the modern novel, etc. All this was possible thanks to the studies of the “Poetica”, an expression which refers to its Aristotelian meaning and which analyses the work from the interior. We were doing what Proust mentioned in Contre Saint-Beuve, or the lessons by Paul Valéry at the College de France. It was a complete innovation with characteristics that had never before been considered in literary work.

But all schools or currents of thought triumph over the previous ones, and create a pendular motion that leads to excesses. By analysing the mechanisms of the work in itself in such depth, we end up forgetting about the readers' enjoyment. Several generations of students of generative and literary grammar remember structuralism as a nightmare, and you accepted the blame.

Todorov: Looking at the programmes in secondary schools, I wondered over the years whether we had really achieved anything with the change. The teaching staff forgot that structuralist techniques should have helped to understand the work rather than being a simple sequence of analyses. Students prepare for exams knowing about “Jakobson's functions”, analepsis and prolepsis, and what a metonymy is without having read Les fleurs du mal (by Baudelaire). As I explain in my book Literature in danger, these arguments mean that I am currently inclined towards a conception of literary studies that follows the model of history rather than of physics, which tends towards knowledge of an exterior object, literature, instead of focusing on the mysteries of the discipline itself ... There is no doubt that readers will continue to know who Rousseau, Stendhal and Proust were, long after they have forgotten the names of today's theoreticians and their conceptual constructions, so teaching our own theories on the works instead of the works themselves shows a certain lack of humility.

In Literature in danger you discuss the teaching in French schools. You say that literature has distanced itself from individuals since the Enlightenment …

Todorov: Literature is profoundly linked to understanding the human condition… The books that attract readers do not do so for scholarly reasons, or rhetorical considerations, but because they help them to live. It seems that the only objective in schools today is to train literature teachers, which I think is absurd. It gives the impression that artists draft their works thinking of critics, as is the case with conceptual art. And the literature that the general public reads is often not the same as the one that interests scholars. The most influential groups control state subsidies and shape public opinion based on literary criticism and educational programmes.

Let's go back to 1963: Todorov was in his twenties, and was involved in the French university atmosphere. Camus was dead and Sartre reigned. What did they think of the testimony of an exiled Bulgarian who criticised the supposed communist paradise?

Todorov: Let's say that when I arrived in Paris, Sartre's star began to wane. And it burnt out in his public debate with Lévi-Strauss: in intellectual circles, there was no doubt that the author of Tristes trópiques had won on points. Marxism, which had been the framework for the human and social sciences and humanities since the Second World War, was replaced by structuralism in the 1960s. Things weren't so black and white in everyday life: young people, the girls I went out with, were left-wing and their rhetoric was based on fantasy. They sincerely thought that I came from paradise, and that they lived in hell. They didn't acknowledge the existence of Stalin's labour camps, or the corruption of the communist governments.

The European left, and the Spanish left in particular, continues to have great difficulties with categorising Nazism and Communism as equally mistaken.

Todorov: That difficulty exists, and it is understandable. The countries of Western Europe suffered from Nazism but not communism, while in the east we suffered from both types of totalitarianism. As we have first-hand knowledge of the cruelty of Nazism and Communism, we have no doubt that they were both similar types of phenomena. In Western Europe, where the Communist party didn't govern, communist militants were seen as selfless and generous individuals - like Catholics who had lost their faith and did charity work by helping others. It all depends on your point of view. That is why it is difficult to have a common memory in Europe.

Recently, we saw the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland: in the schools, they remember the soldiers of the Nazi Reich and not the Soviet soldiers, who also invaded under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

Todorov: History teaching should enrich the collective memory by raising awareness of the different experiences of the European countries. It is necessary to understand why the Poles do not have the same perspective on the Second World War as the French, Belgians and the Dutch. The invasion by Hitler and the invasion by Stalin are rarely associated. And the period between 1939 and 1941 was the turning point in the history of the twentieth century. It was the undistorted truth of totalitarianism as a key and specific event. The rest of time is an illusion. After the war, the Soviet Union presented itself to the world as the sacred victor over Nazism, with 25 million soldiers killed. Europe paid a high price for the debt, and the Russians occupied Berlin. From that point on, suggesting that the Soviet concentration camps had preceded the Nazi lager seemed like a comment in poor taste.

And from that point until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Todorov: Watching the fall of the Wall had a profound historical impact: it was the first irreversible sign of the collapse of communism. The dismemberment of the USSR, which followed ten years later, shifted this event onto the international stage. Communism marked European history and has been the great secular religion of the modern age, the focus of the part of history for one hundred and fifty years. Like the traditional religions, it promises its followers health; but because it is a secular religion, it says this will happen on the earth and not in heaven, in this life, and not after death. It thereby appeals to millions of people immersed in poverty and injustice, who are no longer consoled by the promises of the old religions. It suddenly becomes an ideological proselytism, capable of using violence: the class struggle has to be won in every country; it is necessary to spread the good news from one country to another, and to encourage the establishment of communist regimes. Humanity will gradually "benefit" from the fruits of this red messianism.

Some leaders of the European left and Spanish communists still do not understand, and were reluctant to celebrate the anniversary of 9 November 1989. They say that in the democratic world, since 9/11, control mechanisms and preventive detentions have greatly increased …

Todorov: Being surprised or ironic about the fall of the Wall seems to me to be an insult to those who suffered from it. The democratic societies are light years away from the control by the Stasi or the State Security in Bulgaria. Being watched by a powerful totalitarian system should not be confused with errors in the democratic system, which need to be remedied. But to compare the two situations on the same level is to overlook the suffering of millions and millions of people.

After the fall of the Wall, what world do we have left?

Todorov: We went from the confrontation of two great powers in the Cold War to a multipolar world. Some people believed that we were going to live in a unitary universe led by the United States, but in the end the East-West confrontation has made way for other political models. This situation was unprecedented, although I believe it is positive that countries from all over the world can also write history.

And other walls are being built …

Todorov: Men have built walls since antiquity: Alexander the Great, the great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall in the Roman Empire. Wall of protection against possible invasions. With the passing of time, military defences have been abandoned as technological progress has made them ineffective. These walls are still currently being constructed between Morocco and part of Mauritania; but these protection barriers are normally smaller: around a barracks as in Baghdad's Green Zone or around a neighbourhood with a bad reputation in Padua.
Another type of wall is protection systems for deluxe homes, the separation between the two Koreas, or between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, or the partition of Cyprus between Greeks and Turks. The Berlin Wall belongs to an unusual category. While most walls aim to stop foreigners from coming in, the Berlin Wall aimed to stop the country's inhabitants from being able to leave. It was not used to protect people. Instead, it was used to make them ill. The symbolic image is one of a prison rather than a fortress. When I lived in Bulgaria in 1963, no inhabitant could cross the frontier without permission: the security patrols shot to kill. Telephoning abroad was inconceivable, you couldn't read foreign press that wasn't communist, and foreign radio stations broadcasting in Bulgarian were jammed.

We also have the Wall in Israel and the barbed wire against immigration in the strait between Spain and Morocco.

Todorov: It is surprising to see how walls are being built in the era of so-called “globalisation”. In reality, it is no paradox. What are in free circulation today are goods and capital, audiovisual information and electronic messages. But the circulation of people from poor countries is regulated.

As well as physical walls, it is also possible to talk of “walls” in language: in the communist countries, they used the “doublethink” and the “Newspeak” that Orwell described in 1984.

Todorov: Life under communism erodes the spirit, by systematically using words not to designate things, but instead to conceal their opposite. When our leaders talked about equality, we could be sure that they wanted to protect their privileges; praise of freedom covered up oppression, proclamations of peace warned of acts of aggression, the defence of the common good could be interpreted as the opening of a personal account in a Swiss bank …

And the politically correct language and euphemisms with which democratic governments cover up their errors… are they not a dangerous strategy to conceal reality?

Todorov: Demagogy and manipulation of the word are as old as politics. Plato condemned the Sophists who concealed their actions using words. He attacked rhetoric and all use of language that was not referential. We have figures of speech like hyperbole and litotes, which expresses a concept by denying its opposite. The totalitarian neolanguage is antiphrasis, using a word to mean the exact opposite of what is being said: it is the lowest level of deceit in language. Of course they can create obstacles to free thought, based on cliches and stereotypes, but a physical wall is equivalent to prison and is much more serious than a language barrier.

The "conversion" to democracy of the ex-communist countries has been affected by what the Romanian writer Norman Manea llama called the "slow poison" of the old totalitarian regime, which still contaminates politics in Eastern Europe ... Václav Havel referred directly to "Mafia democracies".

Todorov: Indeed, this transformation of all values which we have talked about, the concealment of their opposite, was confirmed with the fall of communism, as the leaders, or their descendants, or the ex-chiefs of the KGB, became the first "capitalists", the owners of privatised companies and experts in lucrative dirty tricks. Their conversion to democratic rhetoric and the habits of personal accumulation of wealth was immediate, and shows that their metamorphosis was already at a very advanced stage when the time came to change the system. Putin is the most obvious example of this strategy.

I mentioned “red messianism” earlier. Since the defeat of communism, as any other free market messianism emerged?

Todorov: From a historical perspective, Communist messianism appears to be a variation and a transformation of an older secular messianism, which emerged with the French Revolution and today reappears under other guises. We know its previous phases. It came immediately after the Revolution, spread with the Napoleonic Wars, and its ambition was to save humanity in the Century of Enlightenment. A few decades later, it took the form of the colonial conquests by Great Britain and France, which aimed to bring civilisation to all … Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new type of this old messianism has reappeared. In the name of spreading democracy and human rights, the Western countries, this time led by the United States, make alliances for wars against countries that are strategically and economically important - yesterday it was Iraq, today Afghanistan, and tomorrow it could be Iran. The Western forces justify themselves using the backward customs in these countries (the imposition of the veil on women, the closure of schools) or their hostile political attitude ("Islamofascism") and bomb them, occupy them and impose compliant governments on them.

Is this another drift towards totalitarianism?

Todorov: Another example is the legalisation of torture. Torture took place on an everyday basis in the totalitarian states, and it was even a basic part of their survival, but they never legalised it. The West must resist the temptation to torture legally.

Many neoconservative leaders and ideologues in ultraliberal think tanks come from the extreme left …

Todorov: The neocons, the ideologues of military intervention who are legitimated by their defence of human rights, are the descendants of the old communists, who over the years have become ardent anti-totalitarians (first from a revolutionary Trotskyite perspective, and then from a democratic one). In France, the same people were involved in all three stages: they were the standard bearers of the communist religion in 1968, in one of its strands of the extreme left; then they became radical anti-communists and later anti-totalitarians, after the extensive reports on conditions in the Gulag became common knowledge (at this point that they were christened the “new philosophers”); and finally, in recent years, they have emerged as supporters of the “right to intervene” and “democratic” war in the rest of the world. The modern forms of neoliberalism shares some features of communism, perhaps precisely because they fought against it...

And what do they have in common?

Todorov: To some extent, a monist thought process, the desire to reduce the complexity of the social world to a single dimension, and subject it to a single force. There is also the separation between politics and economics. The autonomy of economic action was called into question by totalitarian power, which prioritised politics, with the well-known consequence of empty warehouses and permanent shortages. Now it is political autonomy that is weakened. Globalisation enables the actors in economic life to easily avoid the control of local governments: at the first obstacle, the multinational company "relocates" its factories to a more welcoming country.
Inside each country, ultraliberal ideology leaves no significant space for political action. In one way, this change is even more profound than the one caused by the French Revolution. The French Revolution was content to replace monarchical sovereignty with that of the people, and neoliberalism places solvency of economic forces, embodied in private interests, above political sovereignty. It is necessary for governments and parliaments to refocus their policies in order to achieve the common good for their citizens.

The political class, in Spain at least, is not experiencing one of its high points. After the death of the utopias and the great systems of thought, will we be able to live without ideologies?

Todorov: Human beings in Western Europe show us spectacular changes: from communist faith to ferocious anti-communism; in France, from Marchais to Le Pen… But it is also possible to maintain a critical distance from all types of faith and mental submission. Ideology should not be thought of in terms of the submission of others because they are simple or ignorant, while we ourselves believe that we are not subject to it and have a great deal of common sense. Individuals need a system of thought, although it is a good idea to keep some distance from this system. Exile enables you to observe your own habits critically, and to be able to diminish their importance when you live in a different society.

Let’s finish off by remembering "Adventurers of the absolute", three existences defined by cosmopolitanism: Wilde, Rilke and Marina Tsvetaeva. It is a biographical triad that is a tribute to the great European Stefan Zweig.

Todorov: Zweig was seductive and dangerous. Seductive, because he talked to his readers using a global idea, because he established a continuity between the writer, the work and moral destiny, because he was a true European. He was dangerous, because of his romantic demand that life should be sacrificed to art, a concept which inevitably leads to tragedy.


Musadhique Kottapramban said...

really a great work,
I will be reading all your posts..
really inspiring..

Ana said...

Thank you!

joseph foster said...

Thousands flee the United States.

Thousands flee the United States. According to the web site, each year thousands of Americans leave the U.S. for a new home aboard. According to the main contributors of the site, there are many reason for this, including economical issue such as wages continuing to decline. Also crime is on the rise. The cost of health care in the US is a big problem, too. Americans pay more for health care than any other country, yet America ranks only 38th in the world in terms of health care. Lastly, education in the U.S. is extremely expensive. And getting in to a college can be very difficult even if you can afford it. [Name] is a 30 year resident of the U.S.. He moved his family back to Japan due to the cost of health care and education. Health care in Japan is free and the education is extremely high quality. Why should this concern us? He took his high income and his company back to Japan. Meanwhile, America continues to allow many immigrants in to the country, and most are primarily poor. When Americans leave they take their social security, their retirement benefits and IRAs with them. And many times the company jobs.

Education: Each year thousands of students travel abroad for education. Again this is a case of U.S. dollars flowing out of the country. One such student we talked with told us he was not able to get into medical school here, even with a 4.0 GPA and an IQ of 185. But he was able to get student loans totaling $250,000 and he qualified for medical school in the Dominican Republic. That's more money flowing out of the U.S.. More and more Americans now travel abroad for education. Each year thousands of doctors come from India because America cannot educate doctors fast enough for the growing demand of an ailing society. The U.S. allows roughly 70,000 work visas for highly educated foreigners to come and work in the country. These companies insist that they cannot find skilled labor here, and that Americans just do not have the education needed to fill these jobs.

Health Care: Statistics show that for every one person coming to the U.S. for medical care, more than 12 travel outside the U.S. to countries like Thailand that average over 5,000 foreigners each day for medical care. Think about that: 35,000 patients each week travel to Thailand for medical care, while the U.S. averages only about 60,000 foreign patients per year who come for medical treatment. Most of the 60,000 come from poor countries with little or no medical care, while over 700,000 leave to get medical treatment in foreign countries.

Standard of living: The cost of living in many countries is a fraction of the cost needed to live in the U.S.. One expatriate, James, tells us, "Because many counties have such great transportation system there is no need to own a car. This saves me about $750 a month alone, with no need for gas, no car payment and no need for insurance. I can now afford a maid. I can afford a massage several times each week. I eat at restaurants every day. I wasn't able to do any of those things in the U.S.. Medical care is so inexpensive for me now, I can just pay as I go and there is no wait. I can see doctors, same day, without an a appointment."

The Editor of Escaping America states that by the year 2025 there will be more people leaving the U.S. than coming to it.

Ana said...

Hi Joseph,
Thank you very much for the information.
I didn't know that the number of Americans leaving was that high.