Little Review

(on) Tzvetan Todorov, Life in Common, trans. Katherine Golsan and Lucy Golsan 
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 174 pp.

Bulgarian-born French savant and man of letters, Todorov has engaged, in one fashion or another, with virtually every current in the human sciences of the last quarter century. He has written substantial works on literary theory: the literature of fantasticism, the typology of the detective story, the theory of genres, the poetics of prose. On literary criticism: Proust, Flaubert, Bénichou, Bakhtin. On philosophy: Rousseau, Constant, humanist thought, the morals of history. On semiotics: French structuralism, Russian formalism, theories of the symbol, the grammar of the Decameron, an encyclopedic dictionary of the language sciences. On totalitarianism: why Bulgaria's Jews escaped the Holocaust, moral life in the concentration camps, voices from the Bulgarian gulag. On nationalism, racism, and exoticism: French reflections on human diversity, the conquest of America, the civil war in occupied France.

Now, in this drifting, compendious little book, crisp, assured, and oddly old-fashioned (nothing wrong with that), he seeks to sum up the overall view of life that has animated everything he has done. This is an essay in what he calls "general anthropology," which has, he says, nothing to do with the jargon-ridden sort of particularistic study that goes under the name today, but is rather a reflection, "half-way between the human sciences and philosophy," on what it amounts to, anywhere and everywhere, to be human.

To this end, he touches episodically, and rather at random, on the work of various writers, some famous (Freud, Sartre, Rousseau, La Rochefoucauld, Bataille, Adam Smith, Proust), some not (Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Roman Gary, Michael Balint, Karl Phillip Moritz), and all European, whose remarks on the matter he has found suggestive or countersuggestive. He concludes from this material that "man" is fundamentally a social being with "a need for the gaze of the other." It is the recognition of us by others that makes us what we are; "to be deprived of [such recognition] is to suffocate."

Well, yes: but after G. H. Mead, Wittgenstein, and Todorov's — alas, inimitable — model, Montaigne, this conclusion is hardly news. Except for an interesting  distinction, borrowed from Moritz, between "life" and "existence," there is not much new here for those of us still mired in the fact and detail of the special sciences.

Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz's books include Available Light, After the Fact, Local Knowledge, Negara, and The Interpretation of Cultures. His Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. 

in: Common Knowledge 8.3 (2002) 548-549, Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press. All rights reserved.

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