Our Share in this World

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Our Share in this World

Ivan or Cvetan?

The first year following the spectacular fall of communism in Europe (1990) brought a novel (among many others), “set” at the time of the student riots in Europe in the sixties (1968). The novel depicts the milieu of Paris intellectual elite that was not left aside from these events. It is not only the topic and the heroes from the novel Samurai (Les Samouraпs1F) that attract attention, but also – not less – its author. It is Julija Kristeva, known more as a leading university professor of linguistics and psychoanalysis (Paris VII) than as a reputable novelist.
Kristeva came from Sofia (Bulgaria) to Paris two years prior to the student riots (1966). For an unusually short time she managed to fight her way to the very centre of the then cultural avant-garde, gathered around the already cult Roland Bart. About ten years earlier (1956) Bart started a crusade against the hopelessly undistinguished, monotonous and tedious academism of the then university criticism. The sun of that academism, symbolically represented by Raymond Picar extinguished; in Paris shone and in the world spread the dazzling splendour of his sensuous, erotically electric criticism: seductive, playful, elegant, technically perfect and equally attractive both for the student masses that filled up the aulas where he delivered lectures, as well as for the learned humanist elite from all four sides of the world. Three years (1963) before Kristeva, in the same way from Sofia to Paris arrived Cvetan Todorov who, at the time when Kristeva arrived had a solid, if not a favoured position in Bart’s orbit.
The beginning of Julija Kristeva’s novel speaks of this “coming”. The novel is a self-evident “picture” of people in which “the most well-known intellectuals from that epoch” are dominant. Cvetan Todorov is one of them, and he much later, in another place, himself ponders about his coming to Paris: “My transfer from Sofia to Paris (…) showed me simultaneously the relative and the absolute. The relative, since I could know that everything does not have to occur everywhere as in my native country. The absolute too, because the totalitarian regime in which I grew up could serve to me, in all circumstances, as a backing for evil” (L’homme dépaysé, 25).
What is the portrait like (1966) and what did Cvetan Todorov do according to Kristeva’s remembrance, for which she says, calling upon h that it looks like “soldier’s courage”: just like the courage of that kind, remembrance (memory) does not stand “compromises”; this is incorruptible, severe, and merciless: something like truth and justice.
Ivan (that is the name of Cvetan Todorov in the novel Samurai) is young man who “avariciously picks up the Parish argot”. He had just translated an anthology of studies (by the Russian formalists, published under the name Theory of Literature) for the very famous collection Tel Quel which, in the novel, is renamed Maintenant, edited by Philip Solers; The latter hides behind the name Hervé Sinteuil. That Ivan was “noble”; he already settled down in Paris with his “knowledge and information”, to a certain extent “spiteful, perhaps as if he had been reined by an ambition without enthusiasm” (Samouraп, 18). He advised his countrywoman not to waste her time at Sorbona as he had done: “I go”, he says, to the School for High Studies with Armand Breal (=Roland Bart), the most esteemed, professor “in fashion” (le plus chic qui soit), “an artist” and also – “a musician of the concept”. He knows that one day Kristeva will have to return “down there” (in Bulgaria), because she still was a “Marxist”; for this reason he suggests to her to follow lectures of Edelman (Lisien Goldman, a Marxist philosopher an follower of Lukac, who develops the theory of reification on the bases of the “degraded hero” of the Hungarian philosopher, a variant of Marx’s “alienation” = estrangement): “For you, it means, I see only Edelman” (ibid, 19).
The main hero (Olga) in the novel we are discussing lets us, through the details of that kind, to be read as Julija (Kristeva): “a story in which I am involved but – from far, far away” (ibid, 11). That Olga/Julija accepts the useful advice of her countryman Ivan/Cvetan and soon meets Edelman. He has the habit of talking much, Olga understands little; he explains to her that man needs “a totality”, in the spirit of Marxist doctrine, who could be called “God, Future, Structure, the Other” (ibid, 20). She also attended one of Bart’s lectures; she wants to see in the action “the musician of the concept” who speaks of Prust ’s novels: “she went there in order to torment Ivan”; “the hall was bursting at the seams”; “she could not hear the voice of the teacher, a lascivious vibrato”; “he was reinterpreting Aristotle”, according to the commentary of a pale student “with glasses”; “he is just creating an erotic poetics”, whereas Ivan runs around him as “a steward” in “a Breal plane” (Ibid, 24 – 27).
The following year (1967) Ivan published his first, original book in French, in the prestigious (but difficult to reach) Larousse edition in which, only a year earlier (1966) there came out the Structural Semantics by A. Z. Greymas, a reputable follower of the narrathologic theory of the Russian specialist Vladimir Jakovljevic Prop. Although obviously small in size, that book by Todorov (Littérature et signification / Literature and Meaning) in a sovereign and superior manner introduced a name in the then Paris elite. He knew in a masterful manner to combine his affinity towards systematics and detailed empiricism, his original and thorough knowledge of Russian literature and its theoretic thought with the elan, elegance and virtuosity that Bart introduced in the new French criticism of the fifties. These were his great and undoubted advantages, and he was capable of including them patiently in the charm and easiness of the French critical style, while the knowledge of German critical tradition added to this affirmed and authoritative style a dimension of solidity to the degree of non-deniability. Perhaps there is sense to say that in this aspect Cvetan Todorov is the direct follower of Roman Jacobson. Like the latter, he combines the German “discipline” with Slavic “imagination”, which he incorporates in the French “clarity” and “geometrism”. Thus, with him everything is simple, lucid, and convincing; everything is shown and proven, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Hence, he as well became for a very short time “a musician of the concept” like Breal/Bart, his professor and supervisor in the sixties.

The World of Books

How can we nowadays occupy ourselves with works from the immense (and terrifyingly muddled) literary heritage? What do we gain when we plunge into the world of books, in which “the voice of the dead” rules? Can we read these books at all when we demand that literature have its “own” language accordant with the language of the epoch, on the one hand, and “own” problems in which, if not fully, then partially we “ourselves” participate, on the other hand? Do we read once-time well-known masterpieces (Homer, Boccacio, B. Constan, E. A. Poe, Dostoevsky) due to habit or occupation, or do we do this because reading brings us a certain prestige/domination in the micro-milieu where we live: a hidden, but a constant imperative of the urge for being self-important?
There is a limpid answer to these questions in the first book by Cvetan Todorov, an adapted version of his magisterial work, which reads in a contemporary way the Dangerous Relationships by Laclos: “If a poetic study treats a literary work, this work is not for its part nothing else except a language that poetics uses in order to talk of itself”.; So the Dangerous Relationships will be the first subject of this study. But its deep subject will be poetics itself, its concepts, methods, and possibilities (La littérature…, 8). Once these “concepts”, “methods” and “possibilities” are posed on the first plan, and once the discussion/subject of any literary work is posed on the second plan, the result is what is regularly called general poetics. In 1969 the author we are talking about published such a book (Poétique2F) in a special edition (Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme) under the leadership of the philosopher Fransois Val.
Soon afterwards followed a systematic reading of Boccacio’s Renaissance novellas (Grammaire du Décaméron, 1969) so as to provide a response to the query how the once-time great masters narrated, from the perspective of narration in general, in which Boccacio’s style would be defined as one narrative “possibility” which, like any possibility, must be based on immanent rules if it tends to confirm itself as possibility usually called fantasy. After the meticulous discourse on the critical apparatus by the Canadian specialist Northrop Fray (Anatomy of Criticism, 1957), Todorov commenced a systematic analysis of a concrete literary corpus (Gautier, Gogolj, Kafka, Potocky, etc.) in order to define the rules of that genre: he ascertained that the category hesitation3F is a major distinctive and constituent feature of a great literary practice, for which often the metaphor night literature is used, confronted with the day literature (=literature of realism). These issues were solved in his book Introduction а la littérature fantastique (1970), and a year later he published a book in which he examines: how the popular writers of police novel narrate; what is the difference in narration between Ulysses and Shahrazad that must not “keep silent” if she wants to save her life; what are the rules of the American Henry James’s narration, and what of the Russian Dostoyevsky.


1. Librairie Arthéme Fayard 1990; Gallimard 1992.
2. Two Macedonian editions: Poetics. – Skopje, Nasa Kniga 1990; Skopje, Detska Radost 1998 (translation and foreword A. Vangelov).
3. Introduction, 36: “The hesitation of the reader is the first condition of fantasy”.

AuthorAtanas Vangelov
2018-08-21T17:23:48+00:00 January 1st, 2001|Categories: Literature, Reviews, Blesok no. 18|0 Comments