On the death of philosopher and essayist Tzvetan Todorov

We are all barbarians

Tzvetan Todorov was not a typical French TV philosopher, bending the president's ear with ideas on the politics of the day. He definitely would not have called for "Libya to be bombed", as did Bernard-Henri Levy in 2011. Todorov kept a low profile. He passed away early this year. Stefan Buch explains why he was – and will remain – one of the voices of our time

Sometimes, a person just disappears, almost unnoticed. No feeling of emptiness arises, because we were unaware of his significance and thus also of the significance of this loss. Yet, perhaps this obliviousness to a person's disappearance reveals something about us, the heedless others left behind.

When Tzvetan Todorov died in Paris on 7 February at the age of 77, the feature pages fulfilled their duty as chroniclers. Todorov was a French literary scholar of Bulgarian origin. The obituaries list a more or less arbitrary fraction of his more than forty works. And some conclude by noting that Todorov's interests were diverse. And that's all.

Yet there is so much more to be said about Tzvetan Todorov. Profound and original like no other, he carefully surveyed the tension-fraught field of human existence caught up between the poles of respect and hate, coexistence and mutual destruction. The period he researched extended from the "discovery" of America to the murders committed by young men in Paris in 2015 on behalf of Islamic State.

"How do you get along with those unlike yourself?"

In the last few years, the thinker saw humanity advancing toward a tough ethical test which it will have to pass if civilisation is to continue to exist. In the globalised world, the old question: "how do you get along with those unlike yourself?" looms ever larger. Todorov shared with other scholars the concern that humankind is on a path toward self-destruction.

Cover of ″The fear of barbarians: Beyond the clash of civilizations″ by Tzvetan Todorov (published by University of Chicago Press)
Tzvetan Todorov carefully surveyed the tension-fraught field of human existence caught up between the poles of respect and hate, co-existence and destruction with a profundity and originality that was second to none. For over 25 years he worked as research director at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. His publications received many international awards, including the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences. ″The fear of barbarians: Beyond the clash of civilizations″ is widely regarded as one of his seminal works

Todorov's studies of Russian literature and his work in literary theory deserve recognition in their own right. He should be appraised in his role as a critic of his times, a cultural theorist and historian. How, why and when do we form our ideas about the Other? What images of the Other arise and what are the consequences? Todorov's thoughts revolved around the issues that are raised by the clash of cultures. Without Todorov, a portal for dialogue with the Islamic world called "Qantara" would be unthinkable in the history of ideas.

He did not study Islamic culture. But for objective reasons, "Islam" asserts a striking background presence in Todorov's exceptional 1982 study "La conquete de l'Amerique: la question de l'autre" ("The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other"). Based on historical sources, the scholar chronicles the encounter between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the Americas, in particular the Aztecs. This encounter ended as we know with the downfall of the Aztec nation, the decimation of an estimated 90 percent of its people and the forced Christianisation of the survivors.

At the centre of Todorov's analysis is the ability of the Spanish conquerors, especially Hernan Cortes, to identify and comprehend the culture of the Other as fundamentally "different" and to use this understanding as an advantage in waging war. To cite only one example, Cortes deliberately encouraged the Aztec ruler Moctezuma in his belief that Cortes was a messenger of the deity Quetzalcoatl. This paralysed the Aztecs' resistance to the invaders.

While the Aztecs were thus "bewildered", says Todorov, the Spaniards drew on what they had learnt from their confrontation with another culturally different opponent during the Reconquista, the successful reconquest of Andalusia from the Muslims. For the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico, the Aztecs were therefore the new Muslims (or Jews), who had to be defeated, expelled or converted to Christianity.

The Spaniards even referred to the Aztec temples as "mezquitas" (mosques). The Inquisition then tested the sincerity with which the fresh subjects in "New Spain" had renounced their old faith. It was able to rely here on the model used by the inquisitors on the old continent to test the conscience of former Muslims and Jews.

A view to Jerusalem

As we know, Columbus did not go to sea to "discover America" (in fact he died never knowing that he had discovered a new continent). He had actually set out to find a new sea route to East Asia. Tzvetan Todorov found out in his research that the navigator in the service of the Catholic royals also had "Jerusalem" in his sights. Columbus wanted to collect gold and other riches during his voyage to finance a new campaign for the liberation of Jerusalem from the Muslims, in other words, a new crusade. We thus learn from Todorov that Islam as enemy and foil for the Other haunted the minds of the Spanish conquerors of America.

Todorov shows that there were disputes among the Spanish elite on how to handle the "Indians". An important argument for ruthless warfare and wiping out the Aztec culture was that the Aztecs pursued the barbaric practice of ritual human sacrifice.

Todorov impressively lays bare here the origins of the legitimisation strategies of European colonial rule. "We" are supposedly the representatives of a higher universal culture. During the Spanish conquest of America, this culture was Christianity. Later, this superiority might be construed as consisting in a belief in human rights, theories of racial superiority, or the technical advances of civilisation. In this respect, a mental line can be drawn from the reasons put forth for the Spanish domination in Mexico to today's justifications for military intervention in the name of universal values.

The elimination of Saddam Hussein and Muammar al Gaddafi is thus "good" because they were tyrants who slaughtered those who opposed them. War against the Taliban is "just" because they suppress women. Bombing Iran might be "right" because the regime there hangs homosexuals from cranes.

Todorov's body of work raises our awareness of such historical threads. And yet he was anything but an opponent of universal values. He was one of the most knowledgeable and ardent advocates of the European Enlightenment. But he always stressed that human rights cannot be forced upon another culture with violence. That also applies to democracy as a form of government. Todorov did however deem it the best form, which is why he emigrated to France from communist Bulgaria in the early sixties.

"National homogeneity" as an illusion

In recent years, Todorov saw Western democracy as being increasingly at risk, not because of threats from the outside, but because of the way it breeds its own "intimate enemies" in its midst. He meant by this the two very different categories of "disaster capitalists" and xenophobes. Ten years ago, Todorov was already warning of the proliferation of xenophobic parties across Europe. The rhetorical similarities between the French racists of the 19th century and today's Front National were obvious to him.

Tzvetan Todorov carefully surveyed the tension-fraught field of human existence caught up between the poles of respect and hate, co-existence and destruction with a profundity and originality that was second to none. For over 25 years he worked as research director at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. His publications received many international awards, including the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences. ″The fear of barbarians: Beyond the clash of civilizations″ is widely regarded as one of his seminal works
Right-wingers and nationalists on the march: ten years ago, Todorov was already warning of the proliferation of xenophobic parties across Europe. The rhetorical similarities between the French racists of the 19th century and today's Front National were obvious to him

He considered the routine attacks against "multiculturalism" that one hears coming even from established parties and the mainstream media to be dangerous. And he justified this view philosophically. "National homogeneity" is an illusion, he said. That concept is predicated on the absurd notion of social stasis. But society is in fact a dynamic process. Cultures change and can recreate themselves completely through encounters and dialogue.

"The Other" is something to be "discovered", not conquered and destroyed. What is important for humans is that they have a culture at all. We need culture to replace the purely instinctual behaviour that Homo sapiens lost in reaching the current stage of evolution. Todorov emphasised that the plurality of cultures is a blessing, because dialogue harbours the chance for education and strengthening. Instead of seeking to force our own brand of happiness on others, we must be aware that there is a barbarian lurking in each and every one of us.

Isolating ourselves with the goal of having nothing to do with other cultures is an attitude Todorov described as "a new form of barbarism". He found the barbaric to be an altogether useful concept. It encompasses everything that makes human civilisation impossible. He included under this heading terrorism as well as torture, whose reintroduction by the US Administration under George W. Bush he took as an alarming sign.

Nihilism and "deculturation"

After 11 September 2001, Todorov turned against all those who tried to explain terrorism based on Islam. Those committing violence were motivated not by their faith in a religious value system, but by revenge for humiliation they had suffered and by nihilism.

Mourning the victims of the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015 (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
The root of the problem: what distinguished the Paris attackers was not their belonging to an extremist culture, Todorov maintained, but that they did not belong to any culture. They were so to speak "culture-less". "Deculturation" is what Todorov dubbed the phenomenon that is seducing youngsters from Europe′s immigrant populations and which must be thoroughly understood before we can fight against it

What distinguished the Paris attackers was not their belonging to an extremist culture, Todorov maintained, but that they did not belong to any culture. They were so to speak "culture-less". "Deculturation" is what Todorov dubbed the phenomenon that is seducing youngsters from Europe′s immigrant populations and which must be thoroughly understood before we can fight against it. Todorov viewed "the war against terrorism" both conceptually and substantively as an intellectual insult.

Todorov wrote a great deal about how European ethnocentrism, racism, nationalism, fascism and Stalinism have betrayed Enlightenment ideas and the ideal of tolerance. New spectres, enriched with explosive elements of the old, could be forthcoming. He recognised in the xenophobic tendencies of Europe and in the policies of the Bush administration the germs of a new betrayal.

Characteristic of the Bush administration in his view was how it juggled with alternative facts. Against better judgement, the US administration had asserted the existence of biological weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "It is apparently possible, despite party pluralism and freedom of the press, to persuade the people of a liberal democracy that what is true is false and what is false is true." Todorov wrote that in 2008.

He thus already pinpointed the core of the problem that liberal democracy is visibly struggling with today. Islam haunts the minds of the new masters of America even more strongly than it did those of the Spanish conquistadors.

Stefan Buchen

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Stefan Buchen is a television journalist who works for Germany's ARD "Panorama" programme.

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