According to French intellectual lore, Tzvetan Todorov, upon alighting in France from Bulgaria in 1963 at the age of twenty-four, headed directly for the Sorbonne. Armed with a letter of introduction from his supervisor at the University of Sofia, he sought out the dean of the Faculty of Letters in order to propose a research project on “stylistics”—a rigorously formalist approach to literary study that abstracts from history, sociology, and psychology. At the time, however, the Sorbonne was a bastion of French traditionalism: explication de texte and nationally based literary history predominated. As Todorov recounts in his autobiography, Duties and Delights: The Life of a Go-Between: “[The dean] looked at me as though I came from another planet and explained to me, quite coldly, that there was no literary theory going on in his university, nor were there any plans for it in the future.” (Here and elsewhere, I have relied on the French original, Devoirs et Délices: Une vie de passeur, from Éditions du Seuil.) End of conversation. But hardly the end of the story. As it turned out, coincident with the young Bulgarian’s arrival, the structuralist wave was cresting in Paris. Within a few months France would be awash in innovative approaches to the study of literature—approaches that, according to the Sorbonne’s dean, “didn’t exist.”
more from Richard Wolin at TNR here.