Tzvetan Todorov Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Todorov, a structuralist critic of literature and poetry, turned his talents toward analysis of human behavior during the Holocaust of World War II, examining the virtues that inspired heroic conduct and the forces that produced horrific evil in the concentration camps.

Early Life

Tzvetan Todorov was born on March 1, 1939, in Sofia, Bulgaria, to Todor Borov Todorov, a university professor, and the former Haritina Todorova, a librarian. After taking his M.A. in philology at the University of Sofia in 1963, he emigrated to France and enrolled at the University of Paris. Roland Barthes directed his doctoral thesis, which was published in 1967 as Littérature et signification (literature and meaning). Todorov took his doctorat de troisième cycle (equivalent to the Ph.D.) in 1966 and his doctorat ès lettres in 1970. He was appointed to his post as a director of research at the French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in 1968. In 1970, he helped to found the journal Poétique, of which he remained one of the managing editors until 1979. With Gérard Genette, he edited the Collection Poétique, the series of books on literary theory published by Éditions de Seuil, until 1987.

Life’s Work

Although his work is clear, systematic, and analytically rigorous, Todorov’s theoretical stance shifted radically over the years from that of a “scientist” to that of a “humanist” and “moralist.” He also moved from a consideration of only literature to a wider evaluation of social reality and morality. His early work, beginning with Littérature et signification, the published version of his 1967 doctoral thesis, to the late 1970’s, most clearly aspired to being scientific. During that period, Todorov was the most representative of the French structuralist literary theoreticians. His reputation as a moral philosopher stemmed largely from his later works, including Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps.

Todorov frequently discussed the opposition between “poetics,” the study of the general laws of literature, and what he variously called “description,” “interpretation,” “commentary,” “criticism,” and “exegesis”—the study, from various perspectives, of the individual literary work. While Todorov recognized the value of these activities, he, like most of the French structuralists, was primarily a poetician rather than an exegete.

Todorov observed that one sense of “structuralism” is “the study of abstract structure.” Poetics is by definition structuralist in this broad sense because the object of poetics is an abstract structure, the general laws of literature. Yet his work was also structuralist in a narrower sense. In Literature and Its Theorists, he said that Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) is structuralist in that it combines two traits: an “internal approach to literature” and a “systematic attitude.” In The Fantastic, however, he judged Frye’s theory to be insufficiently “internal” and “systematic” because the categories that make up Frye’s classificatory scheme were all “borrowed … from philosophy, psychology, or a social ethic.” Because Frye did not indicate that he used these categories in special literary senses, “they lead us outside of literature.” Thus, to take an “internal” approach to literature in Todorov’s sense is to try to understand literature as constituted by its own categories and the relations between those categories.

What most clearly distinguishes Todorov’s work from other internal, systematic theories of literature is its heavy reliance on structural linguistics and on semiotics as sources for the basic categories in terms of which it describes the systems of literature. Although French structuralist poeticians generally agree that their adoption of linguistic categories is authorized to some extent by the fact that language and literature are both sign-systems, they disagree among themselves about just how intimate the relationship between language and literature is. Todorov, however, hypothesized rigorous homologies between language and literature; in The Poetics of Prose, he quoted with provisional approval poet Paul Valéry’s dictum: “Literature is, and can be nothing other than, a sort of extension and application of certain properties of language.” In Grammaire du Décaméron, an examination of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), he adopted the “methodological hypothesis” of a kind of deep-structural identity between language and literature: Underlying all sign-systems is a “universal grammar,” which is also universal in the sense that “it coincides with the structure of the universe itself.”

Todorov devoted a great deal of attention to the theory of genre. In The Fantastic, his most extended discussion of genre, he considered a given genre as a system of interrelated features. According to Todorov, texts belonging to the historical genre of the “fantastic” have three basic...

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