Faculty Seminar: On Political Messianism (reading The Totalitarian Experience, 2011)

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Tzvetan Todorov
CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), Paris

Date: October 5, 2011

Tzvetan Todorov and a small group of faculty discussed an excerpt from his book, The Totalitarian Experience (2011).

Co-sponsored by: The Consulate General of France, The Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, The BC College of Arts and Sciences, The BC Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.

About the Book

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as many other communist totalitarian regimes around the world. But it would be naive to assume that this historic, symbolic event and its aftermath have completely rid the world of totalitarianism. Instead, we should ask, what is the totalitarian experience and how does it survive today? This is the imposing question raised by Tzvetan Todorov in The Totalitarian Experience. Here, he recounts his own experiences with totalitarianism in his native Bulgaria and discusses the books he has written in the last twenty years that were devoted to examining such regimes, such as Voices from the Gulag, his influential analysis of Stalinist concentration camps. Through this retrospective investigation, Todorov offers a historical look at communism. He brings together and distills his extensive oeuvre to reveal the essence of totalitarian ideology, the characteristics of daily life under communism, and the irony of democratic messianism.

About the Author

Tzvetan Todorov

Tzvetan Todorov is a philosopher, theorist, and literary critic. Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, he has lived in France since 1963. Since 1968, he has been a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research, Paris, where he has been honorary director since 2005. He is author of numerous books, many of which have been translated into English, including The Poetics of Prose (1977), Introduction to Poetics (1981), The Conquest of America (1984), Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle (1984), Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (1996), On Human Diversity (1993), Hope and Memory (2003), and Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism (2002), and The New World Disorder: Reflections of a European (2005). His most recent books include: The Limits of Art (2010) and The Totalitarian Experience (2011). He is member of many scholarly organizations and recipient of numerous prizes, including the Prix Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1991), the Spinoza (2004), and the Prince of Asturias (2008).

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Hope and Memory, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003. Identifying totalitarianism as the major innovation of the twentieth century, Tzvetan Todorov examines the struggle between this system and democracy and its effects on human life and consciousness.

The Fear of Barbarians, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2010.Todorov offers a reasoned and often highly personal analysis of the tension between Western democracies and Islam. His analysis is rooted in Enlightenment values and yet open to the claims of cultural difference.