Tzvetan Todorov, who died this week in Paris at the age of 77, titled his memoir L’homme dépaysé. It was an apt and sly choice.
As a young man, Todorov left his native Bulgaria for France. He found himself in a new land — one sense of dépaysé — but also disoriented, even homeless — yet another meaning. This sense of homelessness is often a curse, but for Todorov it was a great opportunity. Thanks to his incurable state of dépaysement, he remarked, he could not help but bring a "new, different, surprised regard to a new culture. I experience this condition as a source of wealth, not impoverishment."
Tragically, Todorov leaves us just when we need him so acutely, with nationalist and irrationalist prejudices taking the fore, particularly in America and Europe.
In his more recent Hope and Memory, he weaves a meticulous analysis of totalitarianism with case histories of writers and thinkers who experienced it firsthand. He points his readers to overlooked sources of totalitarianism, such as 19th-century scientism, and underscores the centrality of reason and terror. Warning us that while it is emotionally satisfying to dismiss Hitler or Stalin as "mad" or "evil," doing so prevents us from understanding how and why these men did what they did: "Reason may serve evil as well as good: It is infinitely pliable and may be the means of any end."
But it is The Conquest of America, perhaps his best-known work to American readers, that poses a critical question about the confrontation between Europeans and Americans in the 15th century. Why did Columbus and Cortes, as they gained knowledge about their hosts, annihilate rather than acknowledge them? For Todorov, the Europeans spoke about these peoples but rarely spoke to them; they failed to accept them as subjects comparable to themselves.
Here is where Todorov parts company with professional historians. Though he covers a great deal of historical territory, he refuses to remain there. "My main interest," he declares, "is less a historian’s than a moralist’s; the present is more important to me than the past."
Most important, few contemporary thinkers thought as long and as luminously as did Todorov about the Other, in this work and others. Karine Zbinden, a scholar of Todorov’s work, sees him as "reinvigorating … the French humanist tradition." In his long essay on that tradition, "Le Jardin imparfait" ("The Imperfect Garden"), Todorov explores the ways in which thinkers stretching from Montaigne through Montesquieu to Rousseau conceived and more often misconceived the Other. His history writings are ethical investigations by other means.
Published in 1998, the essay uncannily anticipates our present-day challenge. At times, in a gesture familiar to those who knew him, it is as if Todorov grabs you gently but firmly by the arm. In a discussion of Montaigne, he suddenly declares: "Contrary to what all future narcissists will think, it is not me in my own identity who is absolutely different from all other men; it is me as other, that is, a me in relation to another. … The individual exists only in relationship. Every you is unique, every I is common."
Little distinguishes human beings from one another when considered one by one. It is only when we see them, Todorov writes, "in the constellation of their relations" that they become different and irreplaceable. Your daughter, say, is that singular array of qualities different — other — than any other person’s. The Other is not — notwithstanding the conviction of our narcissist in chief — someone we define (and wall) ourselves against. Instead, the Other is who we are: The Other shapes our self, enriches our life, and reminds us of both the unique and universal nature of each and every one of us.
In the end, though, is Todorov’s defense of humanism more lofty ideal than actionable agenda?
Well, that, he suggests, is up to us. While we "can cherish other people and seek to make them happy," we can also "subjugate and humiliate them so as to enjoy power over them." Todorov was all too aware of this grim reality, but refused to surrender to it. As he concluded, humanism can offer nothing more than a wager: "Men are free, it says; they are capable of acting willfully, loving purely, and treating one another as equals rather than the contrary. Man can surpass himself; this is what makes him human."
With Todorov’s passing, his friends and family, students and scholars, all who care about the ways in which the past informs the present and whether humanist ideals live on, we are dépaysé as well. It is our task, in our professional no less than personal lives, to make the same wager he did.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author, most recently, of Boswell’s Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2015).